“Yellow Sky” (1948) starring Gregory Peck, Anne Baxter, & Richard Widmark

In 1867 in the West, a band of bank robbers flee from the U.S. Cavalry into the desert on horseback. These men are: James Dawson AKA Stretch (Gregory Peck- one of Hollywood’s top leading men), Dude (Richard Widmark- a film noir darling/respected character actor), Lengthy (John Russell- a tall/darkly handsome actor who later became a lead on TV), Bull Run (Robert Arthur), Half Pint (Harry Morgan- long before fame on M*A*S*H), and Walrus (Charles Kemper). Near death from lack of water, all (except Walrus), stumble into what appears to be a ghost town (Yellow Sky). However, they soon discover a prospector, Grandpa (James Burton), and his “tomboy” granddaughter, Constance Mae AKA Mike (Anne Baxter- already an Oscar winner for her supporting role in All About Eve). After Dude discovers that this old man has been mining gold, the gang plan to steal from his claim.

James (Stretch) Dawson: Quite a punch you got there, ma’am. Come in mighty handy when you get married.

I learned that Widmark acted in a few Westerns, thanks to another classic movie fan (via Twitter). Yellow Sky is categorized as a noir Western. The director’s name may be familiar; William Wellman directed the original version of A Star is Born (1937). The story was by W.R. Burnett (one of the most influential writers in film history); the screenplay was by Lamar Trotti. The music was composed by one of the best in the field, Alfred Newman; he created the 20th Century Fox logo theme (which is still used today). In 1940, Newman was nominated for 4 Oscars for 4 different films- wow!

Shakespeare’s The Tempest influenced the plot/characters; I learned this from the review that indie director John Sayles did. However, Wellman said in the book, The Men Who Made the Movies, that he had no idea of the connection. In the fight between Lengthy and Mike at the spring, Baxter’s stunt double- Martha Crawford- was used. Peck broke his ankle in 3 places after falling from his horse in one scene, so the man wrestling w/ Baxter in the hay was his stunt double, Jock Mahoney. Wellman noted that Baxter hated working w/ Peck, BUT never gave a reason why. Hmmm… I found this surprising, b/c I’ve never heard of Peck’s co-stars having serious issues w/ him!

I’m NOT yet V familar w/ the Western genre, though I mostly grew up in the desert (Tucson, AZ). This movie is visually stunning w/ stark black and white photography of the natural landscapes. The filmmakers received permission to shoot in Death Valley, which had the dangers of extreme heat, scorpions, and tarantulas- yikes! Peck and Widmark make believable frenemies; they’re NOT only opposites physically, BUT also have different personalities. Each of the 6 men has his own style of speech, unique costume, and scene in which to reveal his character. The romance develops over a few scenes, as Mike learns that Stretch is NOT a bad man (deep down). The last scene looks tacked on (by Hollywood studio execs), as Sayles commented. This movie was re-made in South Africa as The Jackals (1967) starring Vincent Price.

[1] Gregory Peck plays the leader Stretch, an actor normally associated with a straight-laced gait, here he is is weather worn and tired, his portrayal of Stretch as convincing as a role I have seen him tackle. Richard Widmark, in what I believe to be his first Western entry, is truly magnetic, a smirking, snarling Dude that you just know you couldn’t trust if your life depended on it. Anne Baxter plays the sole female character of the piece (Mike), and she is pivotal to the whole film’s strength, tough and full of spunk, her grasping of the situation in amongst these ragged men gives the piece it’s time bomb ethic, and boy does Baxter do well with it.

[2] Performances are superb from all concerned. Peck gives one of his usual stalwart portrayals. Richard Widmark, in his first western is superb as the slimy, crafty double crosser. Also excellent is John Russell as the womanizing gang member (“Now ma’am, you wouldn’t shoot a fine young handsome fella like me, would ye?”)

[3] The main thing you might not catch is that this is an adaptation of “The Tempest,” by Shakespeare. Here, the band of travelers crosses a metaphoric sea (the desert) and reaches a “New World” where they sort out what matters between them. The set was built (and deliberately destroyed) from an old silent film set that was left over.

William Wellman was one of those consistently excellent directors who never really made a bad film, but didn’t always make exceptional ones, and this one is right in his usual mix of strong visuals, tight editing, fairly simple dramatic plots, and a key actor or two to identify with.

-Excerpts from IMDb movies

Noir City DC Film Fest: “Road House” (1948) & “Desert Fury” (1947)

Hey y’all, thanks for reading (hope you also subscribe)! I missed out on blogging re: movies during #Noirvember (yup- again), BUT am gonna share w/ you the 2 films I saw at a local film fest (at AFI in Silver Spring- a FEW blocks from my place). The best part- I met TCM host Eddie Muller (looking classy and full of funny stories) and got my book (Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir) signed!

Road House (1948) starring Ida Lupino, Cornel Wilde, Richard Widmark, & Celeste Holm

Jefty Robbins (Richard Widmark), owner of a roadhouse in a small town (near the Canadian border), hires tough-talking/world-weary Lily Stevens (Ida Lupino- who does her own singing) for a 6 wk. gig, despite the reservations of his manager/best friend, Pete Morgan (Cornell Wilde). Pete even tries to get Lily to go back to Chicago, offering her some money. Jefty is interested in Lily, as she’s “different from other girls.” He brings her breakfast in bed at her hotel. When Pete goes out of town for a fishing trip, Lily turns her charms on Pete, who is resistant. Pete usually dates the roadhouse cashier, Susie Smith (Celeste Holm). Events bring Pete and Lily closer together, until they fall in love. Lily turns down Jefty’s marriage proposal. Then, Pete and Lily have to face Jefty’s intense jealousy!

Susie: She does more without a voice than anybody I’ve ever heard!

Road House was director Jean Negulesco’s 1st film for 20th Century Fox; he had recently been fired by Warnes Bros. Darryl F. Zanuck told him, “This is a bad script. Three directors have refused it. They don’t know what they’re doing, because basically it’s quite good. Remember those pictures we used to make at Warner Bros., with Pat O’Brien and Jimmy Cagney, in which every time the action flagged we staged a fight and every time a man passed a girl she’d adjust her stocking or something, trying to be sexy? That’s the kind of picture we have to have with Road House.”

Not only was Lupino (one of Muller’s faves) a good actress, she also had a head for business (purchasing the rights to the movie for $20K). This film was a year after Widmark played a sadistic killer in Kiss Of Death. As Jefty, Widmark gets to show some of his “regular guy” side, but evolves (or devolves) into a very troubled man. Wilde’s role is as the straight man (which can be dull), but he does a good job. Wilde and Lupino have strong romantic chemistry. Holm gets the (thankless) role of the “girl next door” who’s overlooked, but she handles it well. I really liked the production design on this film; scenes in the roadhouse’s bowling alley were shot at a real alley located near the studio. Check this movie out- it’s one I think MANY will enjoy!

[1] Despite the hole-riddled ending, it’s still worth seeing because of Lupino’s and Widmark’s performances. She is great as the 2nd-rate singer (singing her own songs with a decent but obviously less than stellar voice–which was perfect for the role)… Widmark was interesting because he combined two totally different performances in one film…

[2] “Road House” is an engaging film–noir with a storyline of unrequited love and obsession. Ida Lupino has an impressive performance, singing with a wonderful husky voice. […] This film is also the third appearance of the outstanding Richard Widmark and his insane smile on the cinema. Cornel Wilde and Celeste Holm complete the dream cast of this unknown gem. 8/10

[3] Widmark’s character is by far the most interesting. A little unbalanced at the beginning, he turns crafty and bitter before he loses it altogether. There’s a good deal of pathos in the character.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

Desert Fury (1947) starring Lizabeth Scott, John Hodiak, Burt Lancaster, Wendell Corey, & Mary Astor

Fritzi Haller (Mary Astor) is a powerful casino owner in Chuckawalla, a small town in Nevada. Her 19 y.o. daughter Paula (Lizabeth Scott) has quit school; she returns at the same time as racketeer Eddie Bendix (John Hodiak), who left under suspicion of murdering his wife a few years ago. Paula and Eddie become involved, despite the big age gap and her being warned against him. Fritzi, a deputy/Paula’s friend Tom Hanson (Burt Lancaster) and Eddie’s companion Johnny Ryan (Wendell Corey- his film debut) try to break up the relationship. Then, Eddie’s past catches up w/ him in an unexpected way!

This is the kind of B movie that ONLY a true fan of noir will like (or tolerate)- LOL! Seeing it w/ a audience helped, as did the intro from Muller. The music is unnecessarily dramatic, overpowering some scenes. Fans of this genre MAY be surprised to see Scott as the lead here; she was a limited actress (though V conventionally pretty w/ a distinctive/husky voice). Lancaster (looking esp. handsome w/ his tousled hair and leather jacket) has the straight-shooter role here; Tom (in his late 20s) cares for/is protective of Paula. She doesn’t have many friends in town; other kids stayed away from her b/c of her mother’s profession. The romance between Paula and Eddie isn’t as interesting as the (enigmatic) relationship between Eddie and Johnny. Corey gets a meaty role for his first role; a villain w/ many layers, Johnny is V protective over his friend.

[1] Made in 1947 in perfect glossy Technicolor to distract you from the beserkness and tawdry storyline, this is one terrific exercise in censorship busting antics that managed to fulfill it’s reputation. […] DESERT FURY is genuine queer cinema. With incest hinted, guns and car tire screeching, sinister sunglass wearing and cactus pricks everywhere…

[2] Desert Fury is one of those several films from the studio days where gay was strictly taboo yet it somehow got to the screen. That scene where Corey tells Scott how he met a ragged and hungry Hodiak at the Automat and bought him a meal and took him home sure sounded like a pickup to me. Many from the generation before Stonewall told me that the Horn & Hardart Automat was one of the great pickup places in New York. Romances and flings have started in stranger places. No way that the writers would not have known that. Corey’s devotion to Hodiak can’t be explained any other way as the story unfolds. In fact he’s the stronger of the two.

[3] The best part of Desert Fury is Edith Head’s costumes. Every single scene, Lizabeth and Mary are dressed in gorgeous dresses that will have you oo-ing and ahh-ing for the entire running length. Lizabeth is very pretty in this film, and dressing her up in such beautiful costumes only makes it more fun to watch her, even when she’s exercising bad judgement.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

“Pickup on South Street” (1953) starring Richard Widmark, Jean Peters, Thelma Ritter, & Richard Kiley

This is considered one of the “essential noirs” for anyone interested in the genre. It was written/directed by a 1st generation Jewish-American, Samuel Fuller, a legend of the genre. As a teen, Fuller got into the newspaper biz, then worked as a crime reporter for several years. When WWII started, he served as an infantryman in several dangerous campaigns, and even shot one of the first docs inside a concentration camp! Later in his Hollywood career, Fuller was known for his prolific screenwriting (some of which were made into films), tacking controversial subjects w/ an unflinching eye (to the extent that censors allowed), and making the most of small budgets.

On a crowded subway, Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) picks the purse of a streetwalker- Candy (Jean Peters). Inside the pocketbook is a piece of top-secret microfilm that was being passed by Candy’s ex-boyfriend, Joey (Richard Kiley), a Communist agent. Kiley (who is sort of handsome w/ his dark eyes) looked very familiar to me; it turns out he was the father in the famous ’80s miniseries- The Thorn Birds! Candy discovers that Skip is the thief who has the film through an older police informer/saleswoman- Moe Williams (Thelma Ritter).

[1] None of them are really good guys and they all of their flaws and weaknesses. Really humane. It also especially features a great performance from Thelma Ritter, who even received a well-deserved Oscar nomination for. It has really got to be one of the greatest female roles I have ever seen.

[2] ...even though the characters aren’t perfect, you do care about them — perhaps because they have been somewhat branded by their pasts in ways that are hard to escape: Skip as a “three-time loser” and Candy as a youngish woman who has “knocked around” a lot.

[3] It is hard to believe that when Widmark made this film he was already in early middle age. The 39-year-old star… plays the upstart Skip McCoy with the irreverent brashness of a teenager. 

Haunting urban panoramas and subway stations offer a claustrophobic evocation of the city as a living, malevolent force. Like maggots in a rotting cheese, human figures scurry through the city’s byways. Elevators, subway turnstiles, sidewalks – even a dumb waiter act as conduits for the flow of corrupt humanity.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

Pickup on South Street was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry in 2018, by the Library of Congress for being, “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.” The film is about espionage, but in the French and German versions, the title was changed and all dialogue referring to spying was replaced by language about drug dealing. After seeing a preview of the film, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover demanded a meeting w/ studio head Darryl F. Zanuck and Fuller. He objected to the unpatriotic nature of Skip, even when he realizes he’s dealing w/ communists. Surprisingly, Zanuck refused to make any changes to the film, backing Fuller! This ended the studio’s close relationship w/ the FBI and all references to the agency were removed from the film’s advertising.

Marilyn Monroe read for the role of Candy; Fuller liked her very much, but said her “overwhelming sensuality” was wrong for the story. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Shelley Winters was originally cast to play Candy, but due to pregnancy, the studio assigned the role to Betty Grable. She refused the part when she learned that she’d be playing a prostitute. Anne Baxter and Linda Darnell were also considered for the role. Fuller saw Peters in the studio commissary, thought the way she walked was perfect for the part, and cast her on the spot. Candy acts tough, but is also naive in some ways.

Ritter’s New York accent lends authenticity to the film, though it was not shot in that city. New Yorkers will be surprised when Candy refers to Houston Street (pronouncing it like the Texas city), though the correct way is pronounced “House-ton.” Classic film fans may have admired Ritter’s supporting roles in two great films- All About Eve (as Bette Davis’ friend/assistant) and Rear Window (as a nurse who gives Jimmy Stewart some good relationship advice). Actors of her caliber really add something extra to whatever movie they are in!

Much of this film is shot in extreme close-up, which (as Eddie Muller commented) was rare for its day. Character drives the plot here and the close-ups are used to support character. When Skip interrogates Candy, the close-up captures the sexual tension/energy between them. Peters is shot in soft focus close-ups, enhancing her beauty. The device is employed to heighten the tension. The opening has no dialogue; the drama relies entirely on close-up.

Film Noir re: Pandemics: "Panic in the Streets" & "The Killer Who Stalked New York"

Panic in the Streets (1950) starring Richard Widmark, Paul Douglas, Barbara Bel Geddes, Jack Palance & Zero Mostel

This is a lesser-known movie from director Elia Kazan; it was made before his masterpieces: A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront, and East of Eden. In New Orleans, an illegal immigrant feels sick and leaves a poker game while defeating the small time criminal Blackie (a young Jack Palance). He is chased by Raymond Fitch (Zero Mostel- best known for Fiddler on the Roof on Broadway) and Poldi (Guy Thomajan), then shot by Blackie. His body is dumped in the sea and recovered the next morning by some beat cops.

A police surgeon notices something unusual when he cuts into the body. Lt. Cmdr. Clint Reed (Richard Widmark), a family man and doctor w/ the U.S. Public Health Service, is called in to examine the body. He diagnoses a highly contagious disease- pneumonic plague- and declares that everyone who may have had contact w/ the dead man be found ASAP. The mayor supports his efforts, though some other civic leaders are doubtful. Reed estimates there are 48 hours before the disease begins to spread. He joins a gruff policeman- Capt. Tom Warren (Paul Douglas)- to find the killers.

In the scene where Palance hits Widmark on the head w/ a gun, the actors rehearsed it with a rubber gun, but when the cameras rolled, Palance substituted a real gun. Widmark, who wasn’t expecting it, was out for 20 mins! Widmark commeted: “Why did he switch? Who knows?” In an interview, Widmark recalled how Palance got into the mood of his character by beating on Zero Mostel (off-screen). Mostel had to go to the hospital after his first week on the movie!

…a simple story, but it is still effective and with a great villain. The engaging plot has not become dated… Jack Palance performs a despicable scum in his debut, and the camera work while he tries to escape with Zero Mostel is still very impressive.

You can feel, see and smell the New Orleans of 1950, thanks to Kazan, his cast and script.

The great thing about this movie is the Oscar winning script. The dialog in this movie is also absolutely magnificent and gives the movie a feel of reality and credibility.

Kazan’s work offers a contrast between the confusion, sickness and immorality of the streets with the modest, calm home life of the Reeds. Despite all the danger, ultimately he returns back to the bosom of his family justified and satisfied. The implication being that social balance has been restored, at least for the moment by his professionalism and curative skills.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

The Killer Who Stalked New York (1950) starring Evelyn Keyes, Charles Korvin, William Bishop, & Dorothy Malone

Columbia Pictures paid director/producer Allen H. Miner $40,000 for the rights to this story (based on a smallpox outbreak in NYC in 1947). Millions of New Yorkers were vaccinated against the disease. Robert Osborne (TCM) said that Columbia had to sit on the movie for about 6 months in order to let the similarly-plotted Panic in the Streets to leave the theaters. Sheila Bennet (Evelyn Keyes) returns to NYC from Cuba carrying $40,000 worth of smuggled diamonds – and smallpox, which could start a devastating epidemic. A treasury agent loses her, but keeps on the trail, while Public Health doctor Dr. Ben Wood searches for the unknown person spreading the deadly disease. Sheila is concerned only with her husband Matt, who plans to run off w/ the diamonds… and maybe also Shelia’s younger sister!

Keyes (a prolific actress best known as Scarlett’s younger sister- Suellen- in Gone with the Wind) thought that studio head (Harry Cohn) cast her in this (un-glamorous) role as payback for rejecting his advances. She sued Cohn and the studio, settled out of court, and was released from her contract. Keyes’ hair was bleached blond and she had on unflattering makeup (making her look older than her 34 yrs.)

With the country presently in the mist of a viral outbreak that has the entire state under quarantine and the country on full alert, The Killer that Stalked New York is as pertinent today as it was when it was released in 1950.

What we have then is a gritty, somewhat newsreel sounding (and looking) film whose narrator walks us through all the ironies of modern urban epidemiology.

The anthrax attacks of 2001, the fears of weaponized smallpox being used by terrorists, the concerns about vaccinations and the amount and safety of vaccines, the inability of governmental agencies to work together and share information effectively all come to mind when one watches this film.

The biggest problem is the direction, which is also all over the place. With a story like this you’d expect some sort of tension or suspense but none never happens. Keyes is pretty good in her role but the screenplay really doesn’t do her any justice as our feelings for her character are never really made clear.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews