Jeopardy

Released March 30, 1953: JEOPARDY, starring Barbara Stanwyck, Barry Sullivan, and Ralph Meeker.  Directed by John Sturges (The Sign of the Ram, The People Against O’Hara, Bad Day at Black Rock).  Barry Sullivan embarks on a family road trip deep into Baja California with his wife (Barbara Stanwyck) and young son (Lee Aaker).  Stanwyck’s opening voice over expresses the joy of taking to the open road, and conveys the wonderment of Tijuana’s carnival-like atmosphere and desolate openness of Baja California.  It all sounds delightfully optimistic and freeing until they stop to camp at an isolated beach where Stanwyck’s narrative turns ominous as she describes a dilapidated old jetty that will soon play a big part in ruining the family vacation.  Things go awry when Aaker explores the jetty and gets his foot stuck in the planks.  After Sullivan climbs out to rescue him, a portion of the jetty collapses, pinning Sullivan’s leg under a large piling at the waters edge.  Unable to free himself, Sullivan instructs Stanwyck to drive back to an abandoned gas station they passed earlier to find some heavy rope.  Meanwhile Sullivan remains trapped at the beach with Aakers, as the steadily rising tide threatens to submerge him.  The family’s plight only gets worse when Stanwyck encounters a murdering escaped convict (Ralph Meeker) at the empty gas station.  On the run from the police, he wastes no time kidnapping Stanwyck and commandeering her car.  Despite Stanwyck’s pleas, he refuses to go to the beach to save Sullivan.  The remainder of this rather short film focuses on Stanwyck’s attempts to convince the violent and selfish Meeker to help save her husband, while at the same time, the film’s flaws gradually become apparent.  Since half the movie was spent setting up the family vacation, very little time remains to properly build drama around Stanwyck’s predicament.  We get short vignettes of Stanwyck and Meeker driving the dusty roads of Baja California, interspersed with lackluster scenes of Sullivan helplessly pinned at the beach.  The lack of in-depth storytelling results in many missed opportunities to generate tangible suspense.  For example, early in the film we are deliberately shown Sullivan’s gun being placed in the glove compartment of the car, signaling this will be important later in the story.  But when Meeker kidnaps Stanwyck, he stumbles onto the gun almost immediately and takes it for himself, eliminating any tension around its potential use by Stanwyck.  It would’ve been much more interesting to keep the gun hidden for a time, holding out hope that Stanwyck might get to it.  One can imagine how Alfred Hitchcock might have leveraged this situation far more adeptly.  Another aspect that undercuts the edge-of-your-seat involvement is Stanwyck’s defiantly tough character.  We desperately want to see her overcome Meeker and we share her disappointment each time she is thwarted, but her character is so emotionally resilient, that she barely seems affected by her situation.  In one scene, she even takes a casual cigarette break with Meeker.  With subtle indication that’s typical of the era, it’s intimated that Meeker eventually takes advantage of Stanwyck sexually, but even this is initiated by Stanwyck as a means of trying to save her husband.  While it’s encouraging to see a strong female lead on screen, Stanwyck’s lack of emotional vulnerability only mitigates her sense of peril and thus, our involvement.  The final blow that cripples this film is the unexpectedly abrupt about-face by Meeker in the movie’s closing scene.  For no credible reason, he suddenly chooses an honorable course of action, disregarding his previously well-established selfish impulses.  This sudden bad-guy/good-guy flip is not only out of place, but it robs us of the satisfaction of seeing a reprehensible villain get his comeuppance at the height of his deplorable worst.  In the end, Jeopardy offers a mildly suspenseful story, highlighted by some attractive scenery of Baja California, but ultimately the film leaves us asking, “Is that all there is?”  We give Jeopardy 2 out of 5 fedoras.

Richard Denning

Happy birthday to actor Richard Denning, born March 27, 1914 in Poughkeepsie, NY.  Denning graduated cum laude from Woodbury Business College with a masters in business administration.  Like his father, he took a job in the garment industry and worked his way up to a vice president position, but he never really liked the business world.  In his spare time, he performed with small theater groups and won a screen test at Warner Brothers on a “Do You Want to Be an Actor?” radio contest.  Warners passed on Denning, but he continued to pursue acting and eventually landed a contract with Paramount.  His first film appearance was a bit part in Hold ‘Em Navy (1937), and for the remainder of the 1930s, he continued to have small roles in over 35 films, many of them uncredited.  Finally, in 1940, Denning got top billing in The Farmer’s Daughter and his film career hit full stride.  He appeared in a dozen more films until joining the Navy and serving on a submarine during WWII.  After the war, it took over a year for his acting career to resume, during which time he and his family lived out of a mobile home.  In 1948, his career got back on track when he landed the role of George Cooper on the radio show My Favorite Husband, playing opposite Lucille Ball.  The show was a big success and eventually led to the development of the I Love Lucy TV sitcom, but without Denning, of course.  Denning primarily appeared in adventure films and westerns, but he also became a familiar face in science fiction movies of the era, including The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), Target Earth (1954), Creature with the Atom Brain (1955), Day the World Ended (1955), and The Black Scorpion (1957).  We celebrate Denning for his roles in classic noir films: The Glass Key (1942) with Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake, No Man of Her Own (1950) with Barbara Stanwyck, The Glass Web (1953) with Edward G. Robinson, and The Crooked Web (1955) with Frank Lovejoy.  From 1952 to 1954, Denning starred with Barbara Britton in the television detective series Mr. and Mrs. North.  Denning continued to appear in movies and television until he retired to Maui in 1968.  However, his retirement never got a chance to begin because that same year, he was offered the role of governor of Hawaii in the long-running Hawaii Five-O (1968-80) TV series, which he played until his eventual retirement in 1980. Denning was married to classic horror film star Evelyn Ankers until her death in 1985.  Denning died of respiratory failure in 1998 at age 84.

Sterling Hayden

Happy birthday to actor Sterling Hayden, born March 26, 1916 in Upper Montclair, NJ.  At age 16, Hayden dropped out of school and took a job as mate aboard a schooner.  After several voyages, he took jobs on fishing boats, ran a charter yacht, and worked on a steamer, sailing the world multiple times.  Hayden was awarded his first command at age 22, sailing a square rigger from Massachusetts to Tahiti.  By the late 1930s, Hayden was land-based, working as a model for magazine publications, which eventually led to Hollywood introductions, and in 1941 he was cast in his first film, Virginia.  Hayden fell in love with, and married, costar Madeleine Carroll.  After making a second film with Carroll, Bahama Passage (1941), he left Hollywood to join the Marines, where he became a decorated OSS agent, seeing action in Italy, the Balkans, and Croatia.  Hayden returned to Hollywood in 1947 and embarked on a prolific film career that spanned five decades and included over 50 films.  Westerns were his mainstay in the 1940s and 50s, but he also appeared in eight classic noirs during this period:  Manhandled (1949) with Dan Duryea, The Asphalt Jungle (1950) with Jean Hagen, Crime Wave (1953) with Gene Nelson, Suddenly (1954) with Frank Sinatra, Naked Alibi (1954) with Gloria Grahame, The Come On (1956) with Anne Baxter, The Killing (1956) with Coleen Gray, and Crime of Passion (1957) with Barbara Stanwyck.  In later years, Hayden was known for his roles in Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), Hard Contract (1969), The Godfather (1972), Winter Kills (1979), and 9 to 5 (1980).  Hayden continued to sail the seas throughout his life.  Most notably in 1958, after winning custody of his children in a bitter divorce from Betty Ann de Noon, he defied a court order and took his children on a sailing trip from San Francisco to Tahiti.  Near the end of his career, Hayden would say that acting was merely a way to pay for his many sea-going adventures.  He wrote about his life and passion for sailing in his 1962 autobiography, Wanderer.  Hayden died of prostate cancer in 1986 at age 70.

Make Haste to Live

Released March 25, 1954: MAKE HASTE TO LIVE, starring Dorothy McGuire, Stephen McNally, and Mary Murphy.  Directed by William A. Seiter (You Were Never Lovelier, Lover Come Back, Borderline).  This film opens with a disturbingly creepy scene in which a shadowy figure enters Dorothy McGuire’s home in the middle of the night while she sleeps.  Making his way to her bedroom, he stands in the dark, watching her.  McGuire is eventually startled out of her slumber by the intruder’s presence, but finds nothing when she inspects the house.  However, in the distance we hear someone get into a car and drive off.  This eerie introduction establishes the dire condition of McGuire’s life.  We come to learn that nearly twenty years ago, she lived in Chicago where she fell in love with, and married, a violent gangster (Stephen McNally).  She did her best to endure McNally’s lifestyle and abuse, but decided to flee the marriage when she discovered she was pregnant, refusing to raise her child in a malevolent environment.  Shortly thereafter, McNally was involved in the accidental death of a woman, but due to the condition of the body, she couldn’t be positively identified, so the authorities assumed it was McGuire, and McNally was sentenced to twenty years for murdering his wife.  McGuire was too afraid to return to Chicago to prove McNally didn’t kill her, and eventually settled in Candlewood, NM, where she ran the local paper and raised her daughter (Mary Murphy), never telling anyone about her past.  Twenty years later, her worst fears are realized when McNally is paroled and shows up in Candlewood, pretending to be her long lost brother.  Bent on revenge, he moves into her home, takes all her money and savings, wins over his “niece”, and threatens to kill McGuire, who now finds herself desperate to get away once again.  Dorothy McGuire’s performance is the centerpiece of this film.  She shines as a protective mother who will do almost anything to ensure no harm comes to her daughter.  Living under extreme pressure, she must balance her seemingly normal external life against the strain of McNally’s increasingly threatening demands.  McGuire’s innate sincerity and inner moral strength keep us invested in the story and we can’t help but root for her to prevail in this impossible situation that has no apparent way out.  For his part, McNally presents an insidiously menacing foe.  Outwardly cordial and friendly, but constantly scheming, he manages to stay one step ahead of any ideas McGuire has to extricate herself and her daughter from his oppressive presence.  However, in spite of the compelling story and McGuire’s stellar performance, the film doesn’t deliver the expected level of tension or suspense.  McGuire’s ordeal is distressing, but the film stops short of making the audience squirm with discomfort.  This is likely due to the prevailing censorship rules of the era.  Nowadays, McGuire’s predicament would be depicted with much more harrowing realism, which isn’t necessarily an improvement, but some added tension would enhance the overall narrative.  Working in the film’s favor are the many location shots in New Mexico.  Even by the mid-1950s, Candlewood and Albuquerque appear to be nothing more than small frontier towns, and the archeological excavation sites in the nearby Native American pueblos provide a memorable and unique setting.  As often happens in films of this type, the climactic finale wraps up a little too quickly and neatly, but not before tossing in an unexpected twist of misdirection.  In the final sequence, McGuire leads an unwitting McNally to the edge of a bottomless pit within the pueblo labyrinths, presenting the perfect opportunity to cleanly do away with him once and for all.  The seeds for this outcome were planted early in the film when we were introduced to the mysterious pit, and it seems like the obvious culmination.  But unexpectedly, McGuire’s strong moral compass takes the ending in a different direction, which may disappoint some viewers, but when viewed in context, stays true to the character’s inner motivations.  Look for Edgar Buchanan and Carolyn Jones in small supporting parts.  Both would achieve notoriety as stars of 1960s TV sitcoms Petticoat Junction (1963-70) and The Addams Family (1964-66) respectively.  We give Make Haste to Live 3.5 out of 5 fedoras.

Bait

Released February 24, 1954: BAIT, starring Cleo Moore, Hugo Haas, and John Agar.  Directed by Hugo Haas (Pickup, One Girl’s Confession, Hit and Run). Co-written, acted, and directed by Hugo Haas, a self-made auteur who was never able to transcend B-film mediocrity, Bait is an odd little film that barely qualifies as film noir.  baitHaas plays an old prospector searching for a gold mine that he lost several years prior, when he and his partner were caught in a severe snowstorm and his partner died.  Every summer, Haas ventures back into the mountains in search of his mine, often taking a partner for assistance.  This time, he’s convinced young John Agar to accompany him with the promise of splitting whatever gold they find 50/50.  Once in the mountains, Agar and Haas make a home for themselves in a small abandoned cabin, and it doesn’t take long for them to stumble onto the lost mine and begin digging for gold.  Intoxicated by the abundance of gold they collect, both men are stricken with gold fever.  Haas wants to renege on his 50/50 deal, while Agar becomes feverishly obsessed with the lustrous gold dust.  At this point, the story is poised for some profound drama and intense conflict.  But what we get instead, is a far-fetched plot that is not only ridiculously implausible but also poorly executed.  Haas knows that Agar is sweet on Cleo Moore, an ostracized single mother who works at the general store where Haas and Agar stock up on supplies, so he hatches an elaborate scheme to maneuver Agar into a situation where Haas can justifiably kill him.  First Haas, who’s old enough to be Moore’s father, spontaneously proposes to her and Moore accepts!  Next, he moves Moore into the cabin with the two men and refuses to show her any affection in the hopes that she will become starved for attention.  Then he orchestrates situations in which Moore and Agar can spend time together to foster their mutual attraction.  And finally, he pretends to leave them alone for an extended period of time, hoping to trap them in bed together, so he has a viable excuse to shoot and kill Agar.  Not only is this preposterous storyline absurd and improbable, starting with Moore’s rapid acceptance of Haas’ marriage proposal, but the pacing is so ploddingly slow, that any meaningful tension is sucked right out of the plot.  There are far too many scenes of veiled dialog between the three characters that ultimately amount to nothing, and the sexual tension between Agar and Moore is never allowed to reach a level of unbearable awkwardness befitting their claustrophobic situation.  The overall premise of two men in an isolated cabin, forced to rely on one another to work the mine, but mistrusting each other when reaping the rewards, is fascinating and filled dramatic potential.  And the notion of having a woman come between them adds an intriguing twist.  But Bait wastes this potential on a misguided storyline that is hopelessly contrived and lacking in tension.  We give Bait 1.5 out of 5 fedoras.

1.5 Fedoras

Ann Savage

Happy birthday to actress Ann Savage, born February 19, 1921 in Columbia, SC.  After her father died when she was four years old, Savage and her mother settled in Los Angeles.  While in high school, Savage screen tested at MGM but was annsavagerejected, prompting her to take acting lessons at the Max Reinhardt workshop, which eventually led to a contract at Columbia.  She made her screen debut in One Dangerous Night (1943) and would appear in 16 more, mostly low-budget, features throughout 1943-44, including What a Woman! (1943) with Rosalind Russell, Passport to Suez (1943) with Eric Blore, and three films with Tom Neal: Klondike Kate (1943), Two Man Submarine (1944), and The Unwritten Code (1944).  The following year, Savage entered film noir territory with roles in The Spider (1945) with Richard Conte, Apology for Murder (1945) with Hugh Beaumont, and Detour (1945) with Tom Neal.  She made a handful of largely forgettable films for the remainder of the 1940s and early 50s, including guest appearances in various television dramas, before retiring in the mid-1950s.  However Savage’s popularity among film noir fans was about to explode in the following decades.  Because it fell into the public domain early, Detour became widely syndicated on television and eventually available on cheap VHS releases, all of which helped the film acquire a substantial cult following and immortalized Savage as one of the iconic femme fatales of classic film noir.  This newfound appreciation resulted in frequent invitations for Savage to appear at film noir conventions and festivals, as she enjoyed a resurgence of popularity and admiration from younger generations of film fans.  She made her final film appearance, after decades of retirement, in My Winnipeg (2007).  Savage died of complications from multiple strokes in 2008 at age 87.

Journey Into Fear

Released February 12, 1943: JOURNEY INTO FEAR, starring Joseph Cotten, Dolores del Rio, and Orson Welles.  Directed by Norman Foster (Scotland Yard, Kiss the Blood Off My Hands, Woman on the Run).  Joseph Cotten is an American munitions dealer traveling through journeyintofearTurkey, who stops in Istanbul before flying home the next morning.  Cotten has valuable information to take back to his company that will help Turkey’s war effort against the Nazis.  However, while in Istanbul, an attempt is made on his life, so the head of the Turkish secret police (Orson Welles) arranges to have Cotten smuggled out on a cargo ship to escape his assassins.  At first it seems like the plan is a success, but not long after the ship leaves port, Cotten soon finds himself in peril once again.  This is a highly atmospheric film, populated with distinctive characters and exquisite black and white visuals.  The opening sequence in which assassin Jack Moss prepares to go out for the evening while listening to a scratchy phonograph in his tiny hotel room is wonderfully gritty and oozes with dark textures.  Moss himself, is perhaps the most memorable character in the film, even though he doesn’t utter one single word of dialog.  His Coke-bottle glasses, heavy-eyed gaze, obsession with music, and matter-of-fact pursuit of his target, create an unforgettably quirky villain.  Cotten, who co-wrote the screenplay with Welles, delivers a somewhat low-key performance as a confused and indecisive man trying to stay alive in unfamiliar surroundings.  Fortunately, Cotten’s substantial screen presence helps to overcome any lack of charisma in his performance.  On the other hand, Dolores del Rio offers up plenty of smoldering charm and charisma as a cabaret dancer who befriends Cotten on the cargo ship.  However, her role in the story is ambiguous at best and largely irrelevant.  She ends up being nothing more than a tantalizing distraction, which is an unfortunate waste of a top-billed actor.  The rest of the cast is made up of a wonderful collection of colorful characters, most with exotic accents and conspicuous idiosyncrasies.  Among them are Everett Sloane and a young Agnes Moorehead.  Cotten interacts with nearly all of them during his journey, which can be interesting to watch, but also creates confusion in the story, possibly mirroring Cotten’s own disoriented state of mind.  Journey Into Fear is an interesting but somewhat frustrating film.  For all its expressive atmosphere, foreign intrigue, and richness of character, it never really manages to bring you to the edge of your seat.  The level of suspense rises occasionally, but it feels like the film never achieves its true potential and may leave some viewers disappointed.  We give Journey Into Fear 3 out 5 fedoras.

3 Fedoras

Lana Turner

Happy birthday to actress Lana Turner, lanaturnerborn February 8, 1921 in Wallace, ID.  When Turner was 10 years old, she and her mother moved to Los Angeles after spending several years in San Francisco, where a year earlier, her father was murdered.  Turner and her mother lived a meager life of poverty until their lives were suddenly turned around on a fateful afternoon in 1937.  On that day, a 16-year-old Turner snuck out of high school to smoke a cigarette and ended up at a nearby soda fountain where William R. Wilkerson, publisher of the Hollywood Reporter, happened to be sitting at the counter.  Struck by Turner’s dazzling beauty, he asked her, “How would you like to be in the movies?”  Turner said she needed to check with her mother and took Wilkerson’s card.  After confirming Wilkerson was indeed a major Hollywood heavyweight, they contacted him and Turner’s ascent to film stardom was instantly set in motion.  Wilkerson introduced Turner to agent Zeppo Marx, who signed her and took her to Warner Bros. where director Mervyn LeRoy immediately cast her in They Won’t Forget (1937).  After a series of youth-oriented films in the late 1930s, Turner started getting serious roles and quickly developed into a star.  Some of her notable films include: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941) with Spencer Tracy and Ingrid Bergman, Slightly Dangerous (1943) with Robert Young, Green Dolphin Street (1947) with Van Heflin and Donna Reed, The Three Musketeers (1948) with Gene Kelly and June Allyson, The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) with Kirk Douglas, Peyton Place (1957) with Lee Philips, for which Turner received a Best Actress Oscar nomination, and Imitation of Life (1959) with Sandra Dee.  Turner appeared in two classic noir films: Johnny Eager (1942) with Robert Taylor and The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) with John Garfield, which became one of her best remembered roles.  Throughout her career, Turner’s dating escapades and eight marriages provided fodder for a never-ending stream of sensational Hollywood headlines.  Among her husbands were bandleader Artie Shaw and actor Lex Barker.  In 1957, Turner dated Johnny Stompanato, who had strong organized crime ties.  Their tempestuous and often abusive relationship came to a horrifying end when Turner’s 14-year-old daughter, fearing for her mother’s life, stabbed and killed Stompanato in their Beverly Hills home in 1958.  After a highly publicized trial, the death was ruled a justifiable homicide.  By the early 1960s, Turner’s career had slowed considerably, and her last starring film role was in Madame X (1966).  In 1969, she starred in the TV series The Survivors, which was cancelled before the first season ended.  Turner continued to make occasional television appearances throughout the 1970s and 80s, highlighted by a guest starring role on Falcon Crest in the early 1980s, but by 1986, had retired from the screen.  Turner died of throat cancer in 1992 at age 74.

Blind Spot

Released February 6, 1947: BLIND SPOT, starring Chester Morris, Constance Dowling, and Steven Geray.  Directed by Robert Gordon (Black Eagle, It Came from Beneath the Sea, The Rawhide Trail).  Chester Morris is a penniless writer who refuses to compromise his integrity and write books with mass appeal.  He drowns himself in alcohol blindspotto numb the humiliation of begging his publisher (William Forrest) for some much needed cash.  There is no love lost between Morris and Forrest, and when Morris drunkenly barges into Forrest’s office, he interrupts a meeting between Forrest and Steven Geray, a popular mystery writer who is considerably more successful than Morris.  Forrest refuses to give Morris any money and chides him for not writing popular material like Geray.  Morris responds by demonstrating how trivial it is to write for the masses, and instantly comes up with an idea for a mystery in which a man is found stabbed to death in a room that is locked from the inside.  After this contentious meeting with Forrest, Morris continues to inundate himself in alcohol at a nearby bar.  He is subsequently joined by Forrest’s attractive secretary (Constance Dowling), and eventually shares his murder mystery idea with her.  Later that evening, Forrest is found stabbed to death in his office with the doors locked from the inside, just as Morris described in his story idea.  Although he didn’t commit the murder, Morris is the obvious suspect, and is hauled in by the police and interrogated.  The rest of the movie plays out like a classic whodunit, with Morris eluding the police while trying to determine who committed the crime.  Stylistically, the movie feels very much like a classic radio mystery show.  Morris’ frequent voiceovers propel the story in a similar manner to radio narrative, where much of the action needed to be spelled out for listeners in the absence of visuals, and indeed, the story itself has much in common with mysteries broadcast on shows like Suspense or I Love a Mystery.  The cast turns in an admirable, if largely generic, performance.  The chemistry between Morris and Dowling never manages to rise above a moderate simmer, while Geray’s heavy Eastern European accent often makes it difficult to understand some of his more intricate dialog.  The film’s biggest payoff is the ultimate revelation of how the locked-door murder was committed.  Blind Spot is a serviceable low-budget whodunit, in which the story, and not the cast, is its greatest strength.  We give Blind Spot 2.5 out of 5 fedoras.

2.5 Fedoras

Dan Duryea

Happy birthday to actor Dan Duryea, born Jan. 23, 1907 in White Plains, NY.  Duryea graduated from Cornell University in 1928, where he studied English and drama, and was president of the drama society.  Although he loved acting, he decided to pursue a more practical line of work and took a job as an advertising executive.  danduryea2But after six years, the stressful pace of the business world caused Duryea to have a mild heart attack, so he quit his job and devoted himself to acting.  He made his Broadway debut in 1935 as a bit player and quickly progressed to playing lead roles, culminating with a national tour in The Little Foxes.  When MGM produced the film version in 1940, Duryea reprised his stage role on film and never looked back.  In Hollywood, he became a popular character actor and also had some lead roles.  Duryea developed a unique screen persona that was ideally suited for playing snide, slick-haired, mean-spirited, wise-cracking villains – characters that audiences loved to hate.  He was a consistent fixture in classic film noir, appearing in more than 15 noir films: Ministry of Fear (1944), The Woman in the Window (1944), The Great Flamarion (1945), Scarlet Street (1945), Black Angel (1946), Larceny (1948), Criss Cross (1949), Manhandled (1949), Too Late for Tears (1949), Johnny Stool Pigeon (1949), The Underworld Story (1950), One Way Street (1950), World for Ransom (1954), Storm Fear (1955), Slaughter on Tenth Avenue (1957), and The Burglar (1957).  Duryea also appeared in many westerns, among them: Winchester 73 (1950), Silver Lode (1954), Ride Clear of Diablo (1954), and The Marauders (1955).  In 1952, Duryea starred in the television series China Smith (1952-56) and The New Adventures of China Smith (1953-54).  Duryea appeared in many television shows in the early 1960s, including Rawhide, Route 66, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, and The Twilight Zone.  He continued working in film and television up until his death in 1968 of cancer.  He was 61.