“Odds Against Tomorrow” (1959) starring Harry Belafonte, Robert Ryan, Shelley Winters, & Ed Begley

Dave Burke (veteran character actor Ed Begley) is looking to hire two men to assist him in a bank raid: Earle Slater (Robert Ryan), a white/middle-aged ex-con, and Johnny Ingram (Harry Belafonte- also co-producer), a young/Black singer w/ a gambling problem. Ingram (who likes the finer things in life) is recently divorced from his schoolteacher wife, Ruth (Kim Hamilton), w/ whom he shares a young daughter. Burke arranges for Ingram’s creditors to put pressure on him. Slater (who has a quick temper) feels humiliated by his failure to provide for his devoted wife, Lorry (Shelley Winters), who works two jobs. The two men, though reluctant at first, eventually accept to do the crime. Slater loathes and despises Blacks; tensions in the gang quickly mount.

[after Slater insults Ingram]

Burke: Don’t beat out that Civil War jazz here, Slater! We’re all in this together, each man equal. And we’re taking care of each other. It’s one big play, our one and only chance to grab stakes forever. And I don’t want to hear what your grandpappy thought on the old farm down in Oklahoma! You got it?

Belafonte chose Abraham Polonsky (writer/director of Force of Evil) to write the script. As a blacklisted writer, Polonsky used the name of John O. Killens (a Black novelist/friend of Belafonte). In 1997, the WGA restored Polonsky’s credit. The director is Robert Wise (West Side Story; The Sound of Music); he used infra-red film in some scenes (to create a distorted feel).

This is the first film noir with a Black protagonist! The bartender at the jazz club is a young Cicely Tyson (her second film appearance); she passed away in early 2021. Noir icon Gloria Grahame makes a brief (yet important) appearance. The movie was praised highly by James Ellroy and influenced the work of Jean-Pierre Melville (a French director). The volatile chemistry between the three men is at the center of the movie. I liked the character development, on locations shots of NYC (incl. Central Park), and the slightly uneasy atmosphere. Jazz and Calypso music are played at the smoky club where Ingram performs.

[1] Good low budget heist film. Ryan’s character is one of the ugliest portrayals of a white racist in film. Belafonte’s character is one of the most multi-faceted and complex potrayals of an African American up until that time, and the performance doesn’t date at all. Wise keeps the pacing taut and the suspense high.

[2] Personally I found Belefonte’s contribution the most searing. He captures the role of the divorced father to a tee. The scene where he is awakened by his ex-wife after sleeping (ever so slightly) with is daughter is masterful. You can sense the longing in his heart for the nuclear family that once was.

[3] Wise wants to communicate a whole context, he wants to detail his characters to a fault. How many directors would dare that today? Robert Ryan’s part is very complex. First he seems friendly, but further acquaintance shows a lack of self-confidence (he’s getting old, he’s a washout, he wants to go for broke). And he is a racist. Rarely, this obnoxious feeling has been depicted with such wit.

-Excerpts from reviews on IMBD

“East Side, West Side” (1949) starring Barbara Stanwyck, James Mason, Van Heflin, & Ava Gardner

NYC financial advisor, Brandon Bourne and his socialite wife, Jessie, have a seemingly happy marriage of several years. However, about 2 years earlier, Brandon had an affair w/ a younger woman, Isabel Lorrison, who’s now back in town hoping to rekindle the romance. Through a young model/new friend, Rosa Senta (Cyd Charisse- in a rare non-dancing role), Jessie meets Mark Dwyer (a cop-turned-writer just arrived from Italy).

Isabel: It’s all right Brand. What difference does it make? Today or another day? There’s no hurry. You’ll be back.

[Brand turns around and slaps Isabel. Isabel smiles]

Isabel: That’s better, isn’t it Brand! That’s what you don’t get at home. That’s what you’ve missed isn’t it! It’s so tiresome being restrained and soft-spoken and gentlemanly. What you really want is to be a little rotten, like me!

This is a well-made film w/ plenty of clever/memorable dialogue; the pacing is a bit slow at times. I would’ve liked to see more of the West Side (West Village) and more outdoor shots. As several viewers commented, Mason is cool/controlled; he has great chemistry w/ Gardner (and they both have fabulous cheekbones). True, Mason and Stanwyck look like a good couple, but there isn’t much heat. I enjoyed seeing Stanwyck w/ Heflin; his character is very caring, energetic, and charming. They acted together in two other films. There are some gorgeous outfits in this film; the strapless/black cocktail dress that Gardner wears in her first scene is stunning!

Brandon: [Desparately] Jess, can’t you understand what this is for me. I’m like a drunk who knows liquor will wreck him. He hates it. He hides from it. He… he tries!

Jessie: What are you asking for? Permission?

Future First Lady Nancy Reagan (credited w/ her maiden name- Davis) plays one of Jessie’s friends, Helen Lee. Greer Garson, Fred MacMurray and Claudette Colbert were considered for the leads. Gale Sondergaard, who plays Stanwyck’s mother in this film, was only 50 y.o. when this film was made; Stanwyck was 42 y.o. Sondergaard was blacklisted for refusing to testify before HUAC, so didn’t work for the next 20 yrs. Beverly Michaels (platinum “Amazon” Felice Backett) is the wife of Academy Award winning screenplay writer Russell Rouse and the mother of Academy Award winning film editor Christopher Rouse.

[1] One bit of casting that is interesting is Charisse, as she bore a resemblance to Gardner, so the initial attraction Mason has for Rosa bears out his obsession with Isabel.

Gardner provides all the excitement in “East Side, West Side”…absolutely gorgeous and just about burns a hole in the film with her steamy performance.

[2] Stanwyck and Heflin have a palpable chemistry here, and Ava Gardner is a most alluring vixen. Cyd Charisse is a delectable ingenue (and a tall drink of water)…

Stanwyck’s scene with Gardner is a standout — both actresses are well matched; Gardner’s feline beauty and laissez-faire romantic approach nicely complements Stanwyck’s humane fatalism — and Stanwyck and Van Heflin are an appealing couple.

[3] Screenwriter Isobel Lennart was usually good for some smart dialog, and she’s reliably industrious here, though there’s no truth at the center of these doings: People just don’t fall in and out of love as quickly as they do here, and the plotting takes some very improbable turns… Believable it’s not, but it’s very entertaining…

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

“Cry of the City” (1948) starring Victor Mature & Richard Conte

In NYC, thief turned cop killer- Martin Rome (Richard Conte)- arrives in the hospital badly wounded. A slimy lawyer, W.A. Niles (Berry Kroeger), tries to convince him to confess to another crime- a jewelry heist and killing the shop owner. Marty’s young girlfriend, Teena Riconti (Debra Paget), secretly visits him while he’s asleep. Later, Niles threatens Marty by saying he’ll find Teena and force her to confess in aiding w/ the robbery (as its known a woman was involved). When Marty is moved from the hospital to the jail, he escapes. Lt. Candella (Victor Mature) and Lt. Collins (Fred Clark) are on his trail. This case is personal for Candella (who is also Italian-American), knows the Rome family, and grew up in the same poor/immigrant neighborhood as Marty.

I had enough of that when I’m a kid. Crummy tenements, no food, no clothes. -Marty explains why he chose a life of crime

Oh, save it for the jury, Marty. Who do you think you’re kidding? l was brought up in the district too. I’ve heard that dialogue from you poolroom hotshots ever since l was ten years old. Get hip… only suckers work… don’t be a square… stay with the smart money. Let the old man get the calluses digging the ditches. No food… no clothes… crummy tenements. You’re breaking my heart, Marty. -Lt. Candella replies

You shouldn’t miss this gem of a film noir from director Robert Siodmak! I had tears in my eyes at the end; it’s captivating from its start to the (powerful) finish. Not only is it very well-made, it has a moral message (which is not dealt w/ in a pedantic manner). The characters (many of whom are European immigrants and first generation Americans) are fleshed out nicely, even the minor players. Veteran film noir-writer Ben Hecht worked on the script, though he is uncredited; this is a common practice in Hollywood even today. Quentin Tarantino is known for punching-up dialogue on several movies from different genres.

Victor Mature is surprisingly competent in the lead in what must be surely one of his best roles. Richard Conte is simply superb in a complex and tricky role. His method is one of economy and subtlety and a lesson to screen actors.

-Excerpt from IMDB review

I’ve haven’t seen Mature before; he’s 6′ 2″ and muscular w/ a striking profile, dark hair, and thick eyebrows. To modern audiences, he resembles Law and Order and SATC actor Chris Noth. Candella is usually on the move; he is a man who commands attention w/ his body and voice. In contrast, Conte (star of the lesser-known noir Thieves’ Highway) is much shorter w/ a slighter build. He is also handsome and has a strong screen presence. Marty is often confined, wounded by cops’ bullets, though his mind and eyes are always moving. There are many fine supporting characters (few who also speak in Italian), adding to the strength of the film. Classic film fans will notice a young Shelly Winters, one of the many ladies Marty has charmed.

Siodmak was a master of noir, as he blended German Expressionism w/ contemporary styles found in American film. He created atmospheric and memorable movies, perhaps most notably The Killers (1946), starring Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner. Though born in Memphis, Tennessee to Jewish parents who were visiting on business, Siodmak spent his youth in Germany, and even worked in banking (his father’s business) for a time. He also tried his hand at acting, which didn’t work out. When Hitler came to power, he joined his friend- Billy Wilder- in Paris and worked on editing and filming. In 1940, Siodmak was on the last ship leaving France for America on the eve of Germany’s occupation of Paris. His experience in France enabled him to create quality films which looked good on a low budget.

SPOILER-FREE Review: “Marriage Story” starring Adam Driver & Scarlett Johansson

This Netflix movie (released also 30 days in theaters) is based in large part on director Noah Baumbach’s own experiences when he divorced actress Jennifer Jason Leigh in 2013. Jason Leigh (the “Jason” was added as tribute to actor Jason Robards- a close friend of her parents), on whom the character of Nicole Barber (Scarlett Johansson) was based, had early success in the teen comedy Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Baumbach and Leigh previously collaborated on movies together; during the 2009 filming of Greenberg, he and actress/director of Little Women– Greta Gerwig- fell in love. Theater director Charlie Barber (Adam Driver) lived in Indiana before moving to NYC; Driver grew up in Mishawaka, IN. The toys shown while Nicole plays w/ son Henry (Azhy Robertson) in the opening are from Star Wars, a reference to Driver’s connection to that sci-fi franchise. Celeb divorce lawyer, Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern- now winner of Best Supporting Actress Oscar), is loosely based on Laura Wasser (who represented Dern, Johansson and Baumbach) during their divorces. The mediation scenes were filmed in Wasser’s office building.

This film has something for everyone– domestic drama, comedy (arising from realistic situations), music, courtroom drama, etc. Charlie sings Being Alive (which Gerwig admitted Baumbach wouldn’t do), and Nicole sings You Could Drive a Person Crazy from Stephen Sondheim’s 1970 musical Company. Many of us know that Johansson can tackle challenging roles (having seen her since she was an ingenue at 16 y.o.); here Driver gets a chance to shine (and whoa, is he bright)! Both actors are very comfortable with each other; they play the quiet and intense scenes well. You really don’t see the acting- as it should be. You will see some similarities to Kramer vs. Kramer starring Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep; however, in this story- the wife gets an equal voice (which wasn’t given to Streep).

The supporting actors are all well-suited for their parts, no matter how small or meaty. The child actor comes off as very natural. Merritt Wever plays Cassie’s older sis (also an actor); she provides some comic relief, as does the mom (who is a big fan of her son-in-law). Charlie’s theater troupe includes a few familiar faces, such as Wallace Shawn (best know as the villain in The Princess Bride). Alan Alda’s soft-hearted lawyer breaks down what men really go through in a divorce. On the other hand, we see the intimidating/shark-like lawyer (Ray Liotta) who gets results.

Hitchcock in Color: “Rope”(1948) starring James Stewart, John Dall, & Farley Grainger

1. The story unravels in typical Hitchcock fashion. The suspense is built, then lessened by some well timed comedy, and then built again to a final crescendo.

2. The dialogue is natural and flowing. The finest bit of timing involves a swinging kitchen door, the rope, and the fear of discovery.

3. ..it seems to be a very modern film.

4. There’s plenty of black humor throughout.

5. He manages to fit in many of his trademark angles and closeups in, without it seeming forced.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

Brandon (John Dall) and Philip (Farley Grainger- later starred in Strangers on a Train) are two young men who share a spacious NYC apt. They consider themselves “intellectually superior” to their friend, David Kentley, and decide to murder him. In the first scene, they strangle David (w/ a rope), place the body in an old chest, and hold a small party. The guests incl. David’s father, his fiancĂ©e Janet (Joan Chandler), and their former prep school housemaster, Rupert Caddell (James Stewart). While Brandon is cocky and keeps joking, Philip is fearful (esp. since Rupert is at the party).

The story was loosely based on the (real-life) case of Leopold and Loeb, two wealthy students at the University of Chicago who in 1924 kidnapped and murdered 14-year-old boy. They committed the murder (called “the crime of the century”) as a demonstration of their perceived intellectual superiority, which, they thought, enabled them to carry out a “perfect crime” and absolved them of responsibility for their actions. This movie is very different from Patrick Hamilton’s play which was set in England. Sir Alfred Hitchcock made his own adaptation w/ Hume Cronyn (also a prolific character actor); they created new dialogue and characters for this adaptation.

This is Hitchcock’s first movie filmed in color and also his shortest (w/ a running time near 80 mins). The theatrical trailer features footage shot specifically for the ad that takes place before the beginning of the movie. David (the victim) sits on a park bench and speaks with Janet before leaving to meet Brandon and Phillip. Stewart narrates the sequence, noting that’s the last time Janet (and the audience) would see him alive. This movie, considered the director’s most controversial (at that time), was banned in several American cities b/c of the implied homosexuality of Phillip and Brandon.

Rope was filmed entirely in the studio, except for the opening credits (where we see the street outside the apt). The clouds seen out the window were made out of fiberglass. Hitchcock created a (new) way of editing by making the movie look like one continuous shot. He later said that the 10 min. takes were “a stunt” (a challenge for himself). Most of the props and some of the walls were movable. The cast had to avoid tripping on cables on the floor, b/c of the moving cameras and lighting.

This is the kind of movie that you need to see more than once to appreciate, esp. if you saw it as a teen or young adult. There are undercurrents that less mature viewers may not get, particularly the nature of the relationship between the two killers. Stewart is one of my faves, but some critics/viewers have commented that this “dark” role would’ve suited someone like James Mason better. This was the only movie Stewart made with Hitchcock that he did not like; he felt miscast as the professor. The actor was paid $300,000 (a huge portion of the $1.5M budget). The first choices for Philip and Rupert were Montgomery Clift and Carey Grant, but they both passed (due to the gay subtext).