Brief Reviews of Recent Views (DEC 2022)

Dead End (1937) starring Sylvia Sydney, Joel McCrea, Humphrey Bogart, Wendy Barrie, & Claire Trevor

The Dead End Kids (a teen ensemble of actors who’d also appeared on Broadway) are introduced in their Midtown East (NYC) slum, overlooked by the new apts of the ultra-rich. Their antics, some funny, some vicious, alternate w/ subplots: jobless architect Dave (Joel McCrea- one of Hollywood’s “Everyman” actors) is torn btwn Drina (Sylvia Sydney- a big star of the ’30s), his hard-working/childhood friend and Kay (Wendy Barrie), the glam mistress of a rich man; gangster “Baby Face” Martin (Humphrey Bogart- before his leading man days) returns to his old neighborhood and finds that nobody is glad to see him. Then violent crime, BOTH juvenile and adult, impacts the neighborhood and its inhabitants.

Samuel Goldwyn acquired the rights to Sidney Kingsley’s play for $165,000 – a V large amount at the time (equivalent to nearly $3M today). The play had been a huge success on Broadway; its content had to be altered b/c of censorship in film. As some of my fellow classic movie fans know, producers had a LOT more power than directors in the Hollywood studio system. William Wyler (director) wanted to film on location on the streets of NYC, but Goldwyn insisted that the movie be made in the studio. Richard Day (art director) was assigned to design the sets, which were the some of the MOST elaborate sets in film history. Bogart (who was borrowed from Warner Bros.) got his role after George Raft turned it down; James Cagney was Goldwyn’s 1st choice. In order to get past the censors, references to Francey (a young Claire Trevor) being a prostitute were veiled (though mentioned in the original play).

The Mark of Zorro (1940) starring Tyrone Power, Linda Darnell, & Basil Rathbone

The Jagged Mark of His Sword Struck Terror to Every Heart – But One! -A tagline for the movie

I’m a big fan of The Mask of Zorro (1995) starring Antonio Banderas, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Anthony Hopkins. Many of you will know re: the premise of this movie: a young Spanish aristocrat, Don Diego Vega (Tyrone Power- 26 y.o.), pretends to be a “fop,” BUT protects the poor/powerless folks of Los Angeles (then a part of Mexico) as the masked vigilante- Zorro (“fox” in Spanish). Many viewers have commented that Zorro (who hails from the early 1820s) is a precursor to the superheroes we know/love today. Lolita Quintero (Linda Darnell- just 16 y.o.) is the love interest; she meets Zorro (in disguise) and is impressed by his words. Lolita’s greedy/corrupt uncle, Don Luis Quintero (J. Edward Bromberg), has taken over Diego’s father’s job; his elegant/shrewd wife, Inez (Gale Sondegaard), dreams of being presented in the royal court of Spain. However, the main threat to Zorro is Don Luis’ right-hand man- Capt. Esteban Pasquale (Basil Rathbone- a trained fencer). The swordfight btwn Power and Rathbone will amaze you- WOW!

Blood and Sand (1941) starring Tyrone Power, Linda Darnell, Rita Hayworth, & Anthony Quinn

Love flamed in the shadow of death! -A tagline for the movie

Illiterate Spanish peasant Juan Gallardo (Tyrone Power) rises meteorically to fame and fortune as a bullfighter, ONLY to sow the seeds of his own downfall. This movie didn’t impress me as much as the previous one; Power and Darnell are paired up again, BUT then Hayworth comes into the mix. The costumes looked great (IMO), esp. the ones worn by the bullfighters. There is a steamy (for that time) dance btwn (real) Latin hotties- Hayworth and Anthony Quinn (who plays Power’s friend/competitor). Power was Irish-American, though this dark hair/eyes and gorgeous looks got him cast in “exotic” roles.

The Racket (1951) starring Robert Mitchum, Lizabeth Scott, & Robert Ryan

The big national crime syndicate has moved into town, partnering up with local crime boss Nick Scanlon (Robert Ryan). There are ONLY two probs: First, Nick is the violent type, preferring to do things the old-fashioned way instead of using the syndicate’s more business-like methods. The 2nd prob is Capt. McQuigg (Robert Mitchum), an honest cop and the loyal Officer Johnson (William Tallman). They take on the Nick and try to foil the syndicate’s plans to elect Welch, the crooked prosecutor running for judge. I wanted to see it b/c of Mitchum and Ryan; Eddie Muller (TCM) commented that they should’ve switched roles. Muller also noted that it had 3 different writers and 5 directors over its (V troubled) production! Mitchum later said there were many reshoots.

Back from Eternity (1956) starring Robert Ryan, Anita Ekberg, & Rod Steiger

A South American plane loaded with an assortment of characters crash-lands in a remote jungle area in the middle of a storm. The passengers then discover they are in an area inhabited by cannibals, so MUST escape before they are found. Ryan is giving it his 100% (as he does in every role), BUT he doesn’t come in until 15 mins. into the movie. He speaks a BIT of Spanish- V cool! Swedish model Ekberg (sadly) can’t act and is NOT confident w/ her English. That doesn’t matter to the director/producers, as she’s there mainly for her looks (tall, blonde, and curvy). Later on, there is an (unneeded) catfight btwn Ekberg and another actress- ugh! The standout here is Steiger (looking youngish w/ dark/curly hair); he gets the best lines and is the most interesting (yet potentially volatile) character. Beulah Bondi (mom/grandma in MANY classic films) finally gets out of the house- LOL!

“The Naked Spur” (1953) starring James Stewart, Janet Leigh, Robert Ryan, & Ralph Meeker

Packed with Technicolor Thrills! -A tagline for the movie

A former rancher/Civil War vet, Howard Kemp (James Stewart), has been searching for a murderer, Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan), for a long time. Circumstances compel Kemp to take on 2 partners- an old prospector, Jesse Tate (Millard Mitchell), and a dishonorably discharged Union soldier, Roy Anderson (Ralph Meeker). When they learn that Ben has a $5,000 bounty on his head, greed starts to get the better of Jesse and Roy. Howie and Ben have a (troubled) history, and Ben takes every chance he can to sow doubt btwn the other 2 men. To add to the drama, there is a beautiful/young woman riding w/ Ben- Lina Patch (Janet Leigh in one of her early leading lady roles).

You can take any of the great dramas- it doesn’t matter if it’s Shakespeare or if it’s any of the Greek plays- you can always lay them in the Western and somehow, they come alive. There is this kind of passion and drama. You can have patricide, any kind of -cide- but if you’re in a Western, you can get away w/ it… b/c it’s where… all action took place. -Anthony Mann, director

The Naked Spur (directed by Anthony Mann- who started in B-movies of the noir genre) is the MOST successful Western movie of 1953. It’s a “psychological Western” filmed on location (mainly in the Colorado Rockies) and doesn’t shy away from (gritty) violence. There are several scenes of exciting action, plenty of character development, and terrific dialogue. This is the 1st screenplay by Sam Rolfe and Harold Jack Bloom, who shared an Oscar nom; they went on to have long/successful careers as writers/producers. Mann and Stewart would collaborate on a total of 11 films, incl. 5 Westerns!

Ben [to Howie]: Choosin’ a way to die? What’s the difference? Choosin’ a way to live – that’s the hard part.

As the bitter/troubled Howie, Stewart (44 y.o.) reveals darkness, intensity, and vulnerability; the actor was working to let go of his bumbling/youthful/Everyman image (after returning from WWII). A strong protagonist needs a strong antagonist; Ryan (43 y.o.) wears his black hat (villain role) perfectly. As Ben, Ryan (unshaven/floppy-haired) effortlessly switches btwn grinning nonchalance and deep-thinking (in what is considered one of his best roles). Meeker (a leading man on Broadway) looks at ease as the volatile/sleazy womanizer; the Method-trained actor (32 y.o.) sports a bushy blonde mustache. Paul Newman was Meeker’s understudy in a Broadway play. Leigh (at just 25 y.o.) does a fine job alongside her (older/more experienced) co-stars; she gets a few moments to shine (rare for women in Westerns). Even if this is NOT your fave genre, you may enjoy it a LOT! You can rent the movie on Amazon Prime.

[1] Spectacular location photography in the Rocky Mountains lend a ring of authenticity to the story.

[2] …Ryan’s charming, snake-like villain who dominates this rugged western despite strong performances from the entire cast. He obviously relishes his role and is a joy to watch.

[3] …an outstanding western and has lost none of its glow over the years and like all classic westerns it just gets better and better with the passing of time.

[4] …Mann directs very assuredly, James Stewart is wonderfully ferocious and Robert Ryan is very charismatic in a more convoluted role. The film looks great, with wonderful sets, scenery, costumes and photography, the music adds to the mood of each scene without feeling too intrusive, the dialogue is excellent and the story- even with the well-worn themes and such- is very compelling.

-Excerpts from IMDb reviews

#Noirvember: “The Set-Up” (1949) starring Robert Ryan & Audrey Totter

An “over the hill” (35 y.o.) boxer Bill “Stoker” Thompson (Robert Ryan) insists he can still win, though his wife, Julie (Audrey Totter), pleads w/ him to quit (before he sustains a serious injury). His manager, Tiny (George Tobias), is so confident that he will lose, he takes money for a “dive” from a gambler, Little Boy (Alan Baxter), w/o telling Stoker. Tension builds as Stoker hopes to “take” 23 y.o. newcomer, Tiger Nelson (Hal Fieberling), unaware of what will happen to him if he wins.

Stoker: Yeah, top spot. And I’m just one punch away.

Julie: I remember the first time you told me that. You were just one punch away from the title shot then. Don’t you see, Bill, you’ll always be just one punch away.

This movie is based on a poem published in 1928 by Joseph Moncure March, who gave up his job as the 1st managing editor of The New Yorker to focus on writing. He went to Hollywood for a dozen years and worked as a screenwriter. In 1948, he volunteered to work on this film, BUT was turned down! Moncure March was angered that his Black boxer (Pansy Jones) was changed into a white character for The Set-Up. In the original poem, Pansy is depicted as a bigamist. The main reason for the change of race was b/c RKO had no Black leading men on contract. James Edwards (who plays Luther Hawkins), could’ve fit the bill, BUT the studio decided that he wasn’t well-known enough to carry a movie. Director Robert Wise suggested Canada Lee (who’d played a boxer in Body and Soul); RKO didn’t think that would work either.

While he was a student at Dartmouth, Ryan was an undefeated boxing champion- V cool! Former boxing pro, John Indrisano, choreographed the match and is credited onscreen for “fighting sequences.” Fieberling was also an expert boxer. Martin Scorsese is a big fan of the film; he was so impressed by the boxing that he had to deliberately avoid copying Wise’s camera moves when it came to Raging Bull (1980). Wise (who’d begun his illustrious career as an editor) used 3 cameras to capture the boxing scenes: one capable of seeing the entire ring, one focused on the fighters, and a handheld for quick shots and close-ups. This was Wise’s 9th film for RKO; after this, his contract obligations were complete and could work freelance.

Wise credited screenwriter Art Cohn (a former sportswriter) w/ much of the film’s realism. Cohn knew the boxing world; many of the script’s colorful supporting characters came from his own experiences. After attending several matches, Wise added other characters himself; he hung out in dressing rooms before and after fights. Scorsese (who 1st saw this film as a college student) considers it as an allegory for the chaos of life, populated by characters who are flat-out of luck.

The events occur in real-time (over the tight running time of 73 mins); this is unusual for a Hollywood movie. Ryan plays a good/straight-talking guy; you can’t see the acting (as he inhabits the role). I esp. liked the early scenes w/ Ryan and Totter; they make a believable married couple going through a rough patch. All the supporting characters have something to contribute; some of the boxers are jaded (after experiencing disappointment), while others remain hopeful. The crowd can be bloodthirsty, entertained by the (potentially dangerous) fighting.

It’s really a happy ending, in a truthful way. And maybe there’s a hope to that, a hope for the weaker ones in the world.

-Martin Scorsese

[1] I love Robert Ryan films. Whether playing a scum bag or a hero, his gritty and realistic performances have always impressed me.

[2] The end result is a film that is dark, low key and gripping throughout; it exists in the gutter, in the small time where all our characters seem destined to remain regardless of heart or talent. […]

The fight is realistic and tense throughout, I was genuinely unsure how it would go.

[3] What first struck me the most watching this was just how vile everyone- apart from the boxers- are. The fighters are actually the only ones with honesty and integrity running through their veins. These guys are the ones with the self respect being a chief issue for them, they are fighting not just for glory, but for a basic human trait.

[4] Although unnoticed at first, The Set-Up has slowly built a reputation as one of the great noir films out of RKO and one of the best boxing films ever made.

-Excerpts from IMDb reviews

“Born to Be Bad” (1950) starring Joan Fontaine, Robert Ryan, Zachary Scott, Joan Leslie, & Mel Ferrer

Baby-faced Savage in a jungle of intrigue! -A tagline for the movie (featured on the poster)

Donna Foster (Joan Leslie), assistant to publisher John Caine, has agreed that his niece/small-town gal, Christabel Caine (Joan Fontaine), can stay in her apt while she attends business school in San Fran. Donna won’t need the place much longer; she and her philanthropist fiance, Curtis Carey (Zachary Scott), will soon be married. Also, Mr. Caine is preparing Christabel for Donna’s current job. While living w/ Donna, Christabel befriends NOT only Donna and Curtis, but two of her artist pals- struggling painter, Gabriel “Gobby” Broome (Mel Ferrer), and aspiring writer, Nick Bradley (Robert Ryan), who lives next door.

Christabel: You don’t care very much for women, do you?

Gobby: My dear girl, apart from painting my major occupation is convincing women’s husbands that I’m harmless.

RKO had originally scheduled this film to be made 2x previously. This film (directed by Nicholas Ray) was shot in 1949, BUT released a year later. Now, I’m NOT a fan of Fontaine (though my mom likes her in certain roles); I prefer her sister (Olivia de Havilland). I decided to watch this b/c it had Ryan (an actor I’ve admired from several fine noir films). Jeff Bridges said that Ryan was his fave actor- wow! Fontaine isn’t a femme fatale, BUT a conniver who projects the persona of a humble, soft-spoken, guile-less woman. As one astute viewer commented: “she’s reminiscent in her way of a non-show biz Eve Harrington” (All About Eve). Unlike Donna (the hard-working career gal), Christabel has zero interest in work; she quits business school (much to her uncle’s disappointment). Just how bad is she though!?

Nick: [to Gobby, as they both look at Gobby’s painting of Christabel] Looks like a cross between Lucrezia Borgia and Peg o’ My Heart. Even with two heads you couldn’t look like this – or do you know something I don’t?

What does this (above) comment mean? I looked up the references. Lucrezia Borgia (1480–1519) was a Spanish-Italian noblewoman of the House of Borgia who was the daughter of Pope Alexander VI and Vannozza dei Cattanei. According to Mandell Creighton in History of the Papacy, “Lucrezia… was personally popular through her beauty and her affability. Her long golden hair, her sweet childish face, her pleasant expression and her graceful ways, seem to have struck all who saw her.” Lucrezia was known for her cunning and became notorious for suspicious deaths and political intrigue in 16th c. Italy. Peg o’ My Heart was a 1933 Pre-Code film adaptation (there are earlier versions also) of a play by J. Hartley Manners. Marion Davies plays a poor/orphan/Irish girl who stands to inherit a fortune from her wealthy English relatives, if she satisfies certain conditions.

Donna: [to Christabel] I can just hear you, being so helpful – and so helpless. Helping to mess up people’s lives for your own selfish purposes. And just about as “helpless” as a wildcat. Somebody should have told the birds and bees about YOU!

The other reason to see this film (aside from Ryan) is the terrific dialogue; the best (and sometimes biting) lines are given to Gobby (the observer) and Nick. This movie was considered controversial; Gobby is (subtly) characterized as gay and there are (obvious) hints at extramarital sex. Ann Parrish wrote the source novel, All Kneeling, which was adapted by Charles Schnee. The screenplay was by Edith Sommar w/ additional dialogue contributed by Robert Soderberg and George Oppenheimer (who had a prolific writing career in movies/TV shows).

Robert Ryan was an actor first, a star second. He could play the good guy. He could play the bad guy. You name it, he could play it. That’s what good acting is all about. -Ernest Borgnine, co-star of Ryan in 3 movies (TCM tribute)

Nick: [to Christabel] You little fake. Don’t you know what you really want? Make up your mind, and make it up now, because I’m a restless guy.

I liked ALL the scenes between Fontaine (about 5’3″ tall w/ slight build) and Ryan (6’4″/former collegiate boxer), though physically they make an unlikely couple. In the “meet cute” in Donna’s kitchen, Nick jokes w/ Christabel, BUT she’s a little intimidated. At Donna’s party later that night, he’s eager to get to know her and puts on the charm, BUT she doesn’t stay by his side too long. Notice how Ryan’s hand totally swallows up Fontaine’s? Some time passes and Christabel (finally) goes to have dinner at Nick’s place. Ryan’s chest is heaving as they talk just before their 1st kiss. As the romance begins to sour, we see the undercurrent of danger emerge from Ryan (perhaps his trademark). Nick is the one man that Christabel can’t fool!

There is nothing exceptional re: the directing, though Nicholas Ray went to work on some big movies. Though it is set in San Fran, we don’t get many exterior shots of the city or its landmarks (too bad). I liked most of dresses worn by Fontaine and Leslie. One viewer commented: “Ray must’ve had a sense of humor,” as BOTH Nick and Curtis tightly hold and kiss Christabel in the same way- LOL! Much is done w/ sly/knowing looks, though a few viewers commented that they found Fontaine “campy.” The story moved along at a good pace. I got a big kick out of seeing Ryan in domestic settings, being a friend, and esp. – a love interest. Though he gets to play romance in Clash by Night (1952), Nick here is a more fun/intelligent/sophisticated character. However, the romance (w/ Stanwyck) is darker/hotter in the other film. There was another ending shot by Ray for this movie, but the studio rejected it based on moral grounds. You can rent this movie on Amazon Prime.

“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 Belafonte’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