Monday, July 14, 2008

Vive la France!

I’ve managed to catch two very offbeat movies on TCM within the past twenty-four hours; in honor of today being Bastille Day, the venerable classic movie channel treated viewers to a showing of Reign of Terror (1949), which filters the French Revolution through the film noir sensibilities of director Anthony Mann and cinematographer John Alton. Vince Keenan gave me the heads up on this one, and knowing he’s the go-to guy on all things noir I made a mental note to look for it if the movie happened to be in the neighborhood.

TCM’s print originates from the same public domain source available on Alpha Video (the credits of the film run under its alternate title, The Black Book) which, due to its slightly battered condition, curtailed my enjoyment of the film a tad. The movie’s other handicap is that Bob Cummings is cast as the hero (Charles D'Aubigny); as an actor, Cummings has an unceasing talent to underwhelm me in every movie of his I watch (though I didn’t mind him so much as the lecherous photographer on Love That Bob). Fortunately, Bob doesn’t screw up his assignment too badly, and the performances of Richard Basehart (as Robespierre), Arlene Dahl (as the femme fatale, Madelon), Arnold Moss (first-rate as the villainous Fouché, a man who delights himself with his capacity for evil) and Norman Lloyd (among many others) more than compensate. (Plus, you have not lived until you’ve witnessed both Charles McGraw and Dabbs Greer as scruffy, long-haired-and-bearded French soldiers.) Terror is certainly not a perfect film (the scene that shows how Cummings obtains “the black book” is just plain ludicrous) but it builds up a nice head of suspenseful steam (particularly when Cummings and Dahl are forced to hide out at Beulah Bondi’s farmhouse) and is positively gorgeous in its cinematography despite being hampered by an Eagle-Lion budget. (The ending on Terror is pretty lame, though…consider yourself warned.)

Last night at midnight, I treated myself to the 1928 version of The Racket (the silent directed by Howard Hughes), an early gangster vehicle based on the stage play (and adapted) by Bartlett Cormack. Mobster Nick Scarsi (Louis Wolheim) matches wits with dedicated cop James McQuigg, and though the odds are in Scarsi’s favor (having most of the cops and politicians on his payroll) McQuigg gets an opportunity to bring the kingpin down after Scarsi’s younger brother Joe (George E. Stone, a.k.a. “The Runt” in the Boston Blackie movies) is arrested in his precinct for vehicular manslaughter. Marie Prevost is Helen Hayes (no, not the First Lady of the American Theater), an aspiring moll who figures prominently in both the Scarsis’ downfalls. The 1928 Racket was for many years thought to be a lost film until a print turned up four years ago; it was later remade in 1951 with Robert Mitchum in the McQuigg role and Robert Ryan playing the Scarsi part (renamed Scanlon). Both the silent and sound versions are worth seeing; what really surprised me about the 1928 version was that it really moves for a silent film. Masterfully directed by Lewis Milestone, who would later cast Wolheim as the star of his anti-war classic All Quiet on the Western Front (1930).

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