Happy birthday to director Michael Curtiz, born Dec. 24, 1886 in Budapest, Hungary. After studying at the Royal Academy of Theater and Art in Budapest, Curtiz went to work in the National Hungarian Theater as an actor and director. In 1923, he moved to Vienna where he directed movies for Sascha Films. Jack L. Warner took an interest in Curtiz after seeing one of his films, and hired him as a director. Curtiz moved to the United States in 1926, and embarked on a prolific and successful career directing over 100 Hollywood films. While Curtiz was a talented director, he was often arrogant and insulting on the set, quickly losing patience with members of the film crew and generally having a low opinion of actors. But his caustic attitude didn’t prevent him from crafting many memorable film classics, such as Captain Blood (1935) and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) with Errol Flynn, Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) and Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) with James Cagney, Casablanca (1942) with Humphrey Bogart, Life with Father (1947) with William Powell, and Young Man with a Horn (1950) with Kirk Douglas. Of course, our interest in Curtiz lies in his notable contributions to film noir: Mildred Pierce (1945) with Joan Crawford, The Unsuspected (1947) with Claude Rains, Flamingo Road (1949) with Joan Crawford, The Breaking Point (1950) with John Garfield, The Scarlet Hour (1956) with Carol Ohmart, and The Man in the Net (1959) with Alan Ladd. Curtiz died of cancer in 1962 at age 75.
Happy birthday to actor Jeff Chandler, born Dec. 15, 1918 in Brooklyn, NY. Chandler took acting lessons after finishing high school, and subsequently worked for a stock company as an actor and stage manager. In 1941, he formed the Shady Lane Playhouse touring company, but this venture was cut short by the onset of WWII, and Chandler went into the service for four years. After the war, he moved to Los Angeles and found work in radio, appearing in several anthology series and also playing the lead in Michael Shayne as well as the biology teacher in Our Miss Brooks. In 1947, after appearing together on radio with Dick Powell, Chandler got a small one-line part in the noir film, Johnny O’Clock, on Powell’s recommendation. That same year, he had another small part in the noir classic, The Invisible Wall. In 1948, Chandler was cast in Sword in the Desert, and his notable performance led to a contract with Universal. Under contract, Chandler’s first film was another noir, Abandoned (1949). This was followed by a Best Supporting Actor nomination for Broken Arrow (1950), which firmly established him as a star. Chandler went on to appear in over 30 more films in the 1950s. Among them, were three more noir titles: Iron Man (1951), Female on the Beach (1955), and The Tattered Dress (1957). In the mid-1950s, Chandler started his own production company, Earlmar Productions, and produced the film, Drango (1957). In addition to acting, Chandler also had a singing career, performing in nightclubs and releasing two albums. After injuring his back in 1961, Chandler underwent surgery for a herniated disc. Complications developed, requiring additional surgeries and massive blood transfusions, eventually resulting in Chandler’s death due to malpractice. He was 42.
Released Dec. 14, 1955: SUDDEN DANGER, starring Bill Elliott, Tom Drake, and Beverly Garland. Directed by Hubert Comfield (Lure of the Swamp, Plunder Road, Pressure Point). A blind man (Tom Drake) who lives with his mother, comes home to find their apartment filled with leaking gas from the stove and his mother dead of an apparent suicide. The investigating detective (Bill Elliott) finds the circumstances to be suspicious, and after questioning several people who knew Drake and his mother, Elliott suspects Drake of murder. When another dead body turns up, the evidence implicating Drake becomes even more compelling. Drake, with the help of his girlfriend (Beverly Garland), strikes out on his own to prove his innocence. This is a low budget B film with production values comparable to a cheap TV crime drama. The overall story is serviceable, with decent plot development, but the presentation is decidedly pedestrian. It should also be noted this film only marginally qualifies as noir – the only noir element being the storyline of a man desperately trying to prove his innocence. The overall “feel” of the film, however, is not very noirish. This is the second of five low budget films in which Elliott, who was an established star of westerns now in the twilight of his career, plays a police detective. His blunt monotone style may have been suitable for the western genre, but he is stiff and stilted in the role of a modern detective. Drake isn’t much better, leaving Garland as the film’s lone bright spot. She comes across natural and believable, and the best scenes in the film are those that include her. If you can live with a movie that’s on par with an old TV episode, you probably won’t be disappointed with Sudden Danger. But if you’re seeking an absorbing noir experience with top-notch acting and inspired production, you should look elsewhere. We give Sudden Danger 1.5 out of 5 fedoras.
Happy birthday to actor Edward G. Robinson, born Dec. 12, 1893 in Bucharest, Romania. One of Hollywood’s iconic stars, Edward G. Robinson was a forceful presence on-screen, whether playing a tough gangster or an average working man. In an era when Hollywood was obsessed with tall handsome leading men, Robinson, who was of short stature and possessed unspectacular looks, proved that talent, charisma, and intelligence were the true keys to success. Robinson’s family emigrated to the United States in 1903, settling in the Lower East Side of New York, where Robinson studied acting while attending City College, earning an American Academy of Dramatic Arts scholarship. In 1913, he began performing in local theater, and by 1915, was appearing regularly on Broadway. Robinson had two small movie parts during the silent era, but it wasn’t until talkies that his film career began in earnest, starting with The Hole in the Wall (1929). His breakout role came in 1931 when he was cast as Rico Bandello in Little Caesar. His powerful performance set the standard for movie gangsters for decades to come, and led to many more tough guy parts for Robinson. But by the 1940s, Robinson expanded his range, appearing in dramas and even comedies. He was a mainstay of film noir, appearing in over a dozen classic noir films: Double Indemnity (1944), The Woman in the Window (1944), Scarlet Street (1945), The Stranger (1946), The Red House (1947), All My Sons (1948), Key Largo (1948), Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948), House of Strangers (1949), The Glass Web (1953), Black Tuesday (1954), A Bullet for Joey (1955), Illegal (1955), Tight Spot (1955), and Nightmare (1956). In his career, Robinson appeared in over 100 films and TV shows and worked consistently up until his death. His final role was in the sci-fi classic Soylent Green (1973). Two months after his passing, he was awarded an Honorary Oscar for “greatness as a player, a patron of the arts, and a dedicated citizen…” Robinson died of cancer in 1973 at age 79.
Released Dec. 11, 1952: ANGEL FACE, starring Robert Mitchum, Jean Simmons, Mona Freeman, and Herbert Marshall. Directed by Otto Preminger (Laura, Fallen Angel, Whirlpool). Angel Face is a romantic melodrama with a twist, or more to the point, a twisted protagonist. Jean Simmons plays a frighteningly psychotic woman, who is young, beautiful, educated, and wealthy, and who takes a liking to everyman Mitchum. She coyly uses all the tools at her disposal – charm, tears, vulnerability, affection, and money – to lure Mitchum away from his wholesome girlfriend (Mona Freeman) and into her arms. Not only does she win over Mitchum romantically, she even hires him to live and work as a chauffer at the estate where she resides with her father (Herbert Marshall) and stepmother (Barbara O’Neil), and promises to help him achieve his dream of opening an auto shop for sports cars. On the surface, it seems like a perfect arrangement, but of course, Simmons has her own warped reasons for ensnaring Mitchum. She desperately wants to get rid of her controlling stepmother, whom she loathes, and needs to keep Mitchum close so she can manipulate him into helping her do it. Being nobody’s fool, Mitchum recognizes her nefarious intentions and tries to extricate himself from the situation, but his epiphany comes a little too late. When Simmons takes matters into her own hands, with unintentionally tragic results, both she and Mitchum are arrested and tried as co-conspirators. Simmons is absolutely perfect as the sophisticated, raven-haired femme-fatale. The camera loves her, and Preminger never misses an opportunity to give us long lingering close ups that contrast her stunning beauty with the cold calculating look in her eyes. Simmons plays both sides of the fence perfectly. Mitchum is Mitchum; down to earth and completely authentic, which is all that’s needed. He has a way of turning the simplest lines into the wisest comebacks, even if they weren’t written that way. At times it’s hard to believe someone so street-wise would fall for Simmons, but it’s an easy point to overlook when everything else in the movie works so well. This is an absorbing film with a standout performance by Simmons and a great ending that’s befitting of any self-respecting noir. We give Angel Face 4 out of 5 fedoras.
Released Dec. 10, 1949: A DANGEROUS PROFESSION, starring George Raft, Pat O’Brien, Ella Raines, and Jim Backus. Directed by Ted Tetzlaff (Riffraff, Johnny Allegro, Gambling House). Raft plays an ex-cop turned bail bondsman, whose life is disrupted when an old flame (Ella Raines) unexpectedly turns up seeking his help to bail out her husband (Bill Williams). At first, Raft is reluctant because of his unresolved past with Raines, but eventually he comes around. However, Raft get suspicious when a mysterious lawyer (David Wolfe) offers to cover half of Williams’ bond, stirring Raft’s dormant detective instincts and drawing him into a tangled web of corruption and deceit. This film has a great cast that is unfortunately, weighed down by an unnecessarily intricate and meandering story, that develops slowly and offers no real suspense or surprises. It doesn’t help that Tetzlaff’s direction is relentlessly routine and uninspired, resolutely avoiding creative camera angles, artistic lighting, or varied pacing. On top of that, the climactic car chase and fight at the end of the film is handled so poorly, it comes across amateurish and staged, leaving us with a feeble payoff for all our trouble. The cast is the only thing that makes this film worthwhile. Raft and O’Brien, who were moving past the zenith of their careers at the time this film was made, both deliver strong and engaging performances. Raines isn’t given nearly enough scenes, and is essentially reduced to a minor supporting character, which is unfortunate, because she is one of the bright spots in an otherwise lifeless film. And for those of us who grew up watching Jim Backus as the bumbling millionaire on Gilligan’s Island (1964-67), it’s a delight to see him in the role of a wise-cracking police detective. Overall, this is an unspectacular film mired by an oblique story and uninspired directing, which even the talented cast can’t overcome. We give A Dangerous Profession 2 out of 5 fedoras.
Happy birthday to actor Broderick Crawford, born Dec. 9, 1911 in Philadelphia, PA. Crawford was born into a show business family; his mother and father both performed in vaudeville and had small film roles in the 1920s and 30s. Crawford performed with his parents in vaudeville, but later started working in radio and also appeared in serious stage roles. He had a handful of small film roles in the late 1930s, but his first notable part was a supporting role in Beau Geste (1939). Crawford appeared in over two dozen films in the 1940s, usually playing tough guys and villains, culminating with the role of Willie Stark in the noir classic All The King’s Men (1949), for which he won the Best Actor Oscar. Crawford’s film career continued into the 1950s in such movies as Born Yesterday (1950), Lone Star (1952), Big House, U.S.A. (1955), and Between Heaven and Hell (1956). Crawford appeared in many classic noir films throughout his career: Black Angel (1946), The Flame (1947), Convicted (1950), The Mob (1951), Scandal Sheet (1952), Human Desire (1954), and New York Confidential (1955). In 1955, Crawford landed the role of Dan Mathews in the TV series Highway Patrol (1955-1959). The show was a huge success and became synonymous with Crawford, who would continue to appear consistently in movies and TV shows into the early 1980s. Crawford died in 1986 at age 74.
Happy birthday to director Fritz Lang, born Dec. 5, 1896 in Vienna, Austria. Fritz Lang is one of several influential filmmakers who played a significant role in the development of film noir in American cinema. After finishing high school, Lang studied painting and spent time traveling through Europe and parts of Asia. At the outbreak of WWI, he enlisted in the Austrian army and saw action in Russia and Romania, where he was seriously wounded. While recovering from his injuries, Lang started writing story outlines for movies. After being discharged in 1918, Lang worked as an actor in the Viennese theater, but was soon hired as a writer for a production company in Berlin. Shortly thereafter, he started directing films for the German studios, Ufa and Nero-Film. The German Expressionist movement was emerging in the early 1920s, and many of Lang’s films incorporated the Expressionist esthetic of distorted reality, exaggerated perspectives, angular architecture, and dark psychological subject matter. In 1922, Lang married actress Thea von Harbou, and together they wrote all of Lang’s films for the next 11 years. During this period, Lang directed some of his most iconic works: Dr. Mabuse, des Spieler (1924), Die Nibelungen (1924), Metropolis (1927), and M (1931). The rise of the Nazi movement in 1930s Germany resulted in imposed restrictions on artistic expression, including film, and Lang grew increasingly concerned about his fate under the Nazi regime. In 1934, after divorcing his wife, who was a Nazi sympathizer, Lang fled to France and eventually came to the United States, where he went to work as a director for MGM. Lang, along with a small group of other influential film directors who emigrated from Germany, introduced Expressionist sensibilities into American cinema, where it was tempered by Hollywood’s established film making conventions. The combination of these two stylistic approaches is one of the key ingredients that contributed to the emergence of film noir in the 1940s. Lang directed 23 films in Hollywood, half of which are classic film noir titles: Moontide (1942 uncredited) with Jean Gabin and Ida Lupino, Ministry of Fear (1944) with Ray Milland, The Woman in the Window (1944) with Edward G. Robinson and Joan Bennett, Scarlet Street (1945) with Edward G. Robinson and Joan Bennett, Secret Beyond the Door (1947) with Joan Bennett, House by the River (1950) with Louis Hayward, Clash by Night (1952) with Robert Ryan and Barbara Stanwyck, The Blue Gardenia (1953) with Anne Baxter and Richard Conte, The Big Heat (1953) with Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame, Human Desire (1954) with Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame, While the City Sleeps (1956) with Dana Andrews and Rhonda Fleming, and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956) with Dana Andrews and Joan Fontaine. In 1953, Joseph Losey directed an American noir remake of Lang’s German masterpiece, M. Lang’s authoritarian manner on the set and failing health made it increasingly difficult for him to find consistent work in Hollywood, and he returned to Germany in the late 1950s to make his final three films. Poor health and deteriorating eyesight forced him to retire from film making in the early 1960s. Lang died in 1976 at age 85.
Happy birthday to director Alfred L. Werker, born Dec. 2, 1896 in Deadwood, SD. Werker started in film in 1917 as an assistant director. In 1928, he directed his first feature, Pioneer Scout, and would go on to direct over 45 more films across various genres, up until his retirement in 1957. Working for Fox, Paramount, and Eagle-Lion studios, Werker was known as a solid, no-nonsense director who could be counted on to deliver results. In the late 1940s and early 50s, Werker directed four noir films: Shock (1946) with Vincent Price, Repeat Performance (1947) with Louis Hayward and Joan Leslie, He Walked by Night (1948) with Richard Basehart, and Walk East On Beacon (1952) with George Murphy. The most notable films of his career were the aforementioned He Walked by Night, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939), which is considered one of the best Sherlock Holmes films, and Lost Boundaries (1949), for which he received a Directors Guild of America nomination. Werker died in 1975 at age 78.
Released Dec. 1, 1949: THE THREAT, starring Michael O’Shea, Virginia Grey, and Charles McGraw. Directed by Felix E. Feist (The Devil Thumbs a Ride, The Man Who Cheated Himself, This Woman Is Dangerous). A convicted felon (Charles McGraw) escapes from Folsom Prison intent on making good his promise to exact revenge on the detective (Michael O’Shea) and DA (Frank Conroy) who put him behind bars. He and two accomplices (Anthony Caruso and Frank Richards) kidnap both targets and also grab Virginia Grey in the process, whom McGraw believes squealed on him. McGraw cleverly eludes a massive police manhunt and transports his hostages to a shack in the middle of nowhere, while he waits for his partner to arrive by plane from Mexico. McGraw, with his rugged looks and distinctively gruff voice, completely owns this film as the ruthlessly cruel fugitive. Perhaps it’s unfortunate the production code of the era put limits on the amount of violence that could be depicted, because McGraw is constrained to dishing out only an occasional backhand slap, when we all know a sociopath of his caliber would resort to far more brutal measures. It’s the one thing that slightly undermines the believability of his character, but it’s certainly not McGraw’s fault. He still manages to turn in an extremely intimidating performance in spite of this restriction. Don McGuire also gives a notable performance in the small role of the unfortunate moving van driver who tragically gets caught up in McGraw’s violent scheme. O’Shea seems slightly miscast as the detective. His chipper nice-guy demeanor is better suited to romantic comedy roles than that of heroic crime fighter, although he did play such parts in several other films. The problem here is he doesn’t present a strong enough counter to McGraw’s frighteningly convincing heavy. Perhaps that’s why O’Shea spends most of the film tied up and gagged. Feist keeps the story moving, visually engaging, and atmospheric. The stifling heat that’s present at the shack where everyone waits for the plane to arrive, is convincingly thick and oppressive. While the story keeps your interest, it does unfold rather predictably, which diminishes some of its impact. Compared to other escaped convict hostage stories, like The Desperate Hours, for example, The Threat doesn’t deliver the same level of tension or suspense. However, it is still a solid and respectable crime thriller with a decidedly menacing central character. We give The Threat 3 out of 5 fedoras.