Thursday, January 29, 2009

Movies I’ve stared at recently on TCM #18

The Hoodlum Priest (1961) – Actor Don Murray, who was so committed to this project that he also produced and co-wrote the script (under the nom de plume Don Deer), is the titled man-of-the-cloth; as Father Charles Dismas Clark he’s a passionate advocate for ex-cons, believing that recidivism can be curtailed if the dignity of the individual is restored (a job, a place to live, etc.) upon their release from prison. His dream is to build a halfway-house (which became a reality in 1959 with the opening of Dismas House) that will help transition “hoods” back into society; civil rights attorney Louis Rosen (Larry Gates) is his staunchest supporter, particularly when Clark talks him into defending young Billy Lee Jackson (Keir Dullea), who’s been railroaded on a disturbing the peace/assault charge. The roadblock in Clark’s attempts to make Dismas House a reality is a greasy newspaper reporter named George MacHale (Logan Ramsey), who earns a steady paycheck turning in unflattering stories about the padre—though our young con Jackson doesn’t help Clark’s cause either: he’s accused of stealing at the warehouse where Clark got him a job and summarily dismissed, then decides to deal with the situation by robbing the warehouse’s safe. (See, Billy…this is what happens when you stop attending the MENSA meetings.) He kills the brother of the warehouse's owner in this melee, and then croaks a cop while lamming it out of there—Clark attempts to get leniency for the kid but no governor is going to commute a death sentence for a cop-killer, and I’m surprised Clark didn’t dope this out beforehand.

Priest is certainly worth a look-see, though a lot of its material will be familiar to anyone who’s watched their share of Warner Bros. 1930s crime films (there are also heavy overtones of I Want to Live!); Murray is a stand-out as the earnest and committed Clark, though he sort of overdoes it with the Father Flannigan act at times (I also think Gates is first-rate, too). There is one particular scene in the movie that stuck with me after I watched it; a lone protester carrying a sign (that trumpets “We Are All Billy Jackson’s Murderers” on one side and “Capital Punishment is Legalized Murder” on the other) is walking back and forth outside the steps of a capitol building when he stops and pulls out a cigarette—but he doesn’t have a light. A cop who’s kept watch all this time obliges him, remarking: “You’re not going to change the world by carrying around that sign, Buddy…”

The protester looks at him and returns: “I’m not trying to change the world, I’m…just trying to keep the world from changing me.”

Shadow on the Wall (1950) – Here’s a genuine curio: a movie in which Zachary Scott plays a likable guy. Scott’s a devoted husband who returns from a business trip with presents for his young daughter (Gigi Perreau) and wife (Kristine Miller)…only to learn that Wifey’s been having an affair with her sister’s fiancé (Tom Helmore). (I hope Zach kept the receipt.) Scott spills the beans about Miller and Helmore’s rendezvous to Miller’s sister (played by Ann Sothern) and later that night, when Scott threatens to shoot Miller over the affair, she conks him colder that last night’s flounder—and then confronts Sothern, who settles the score by shooting her sis. Because Scott has no memory of what transpired, he’s convicted of Miller’s murder and is sentenced to be executed; his only hope rests on child psychiatrist/future First Lady Nancy Davis (Reagan)—who’s convinced that Scott’s daughter witnessed what went down and tries to help restore the child's memory.

In a film that comes across as more like a Maisie film gone wacko (Homicidal Maisie?). Sothern’s character is a teensy bit inconsistent at times (she’s supposed to be a mousy young thing, but she certainly went after her sister with relish) but I think she’s more effective that way; her best moment is when she’s at the beauty parlor (she’s about to beat it out of town and has even written a confession for the cops revealing that it was her, and not Scott, who popped a cap into her sister) and is about to be put under the dryer when she fantasizes that she’s actually being strapped into the electric chair. Sothern is clearly uncomfortable with the concept of offing the kid in order to protect her guilt, but she certainly gives it the old college try—first by slipping a mickey into the little girl’s chocolate milk and then attempting to drown her in the hospital. In the end, Sothern’s pretty much the only engaging presence in Shadow; the rest of the cast is white-bread bland (even TDOY fave John McIntire, as Scott’s lawyer/best friend is subdued). But at least I now know another movie Helmore was in besides Vertigo…and classic TV fans will spot the pearl-bedecked Barbara “June Cleaver” Billingsley as a maid.

The Company She Keeps (1951) – A movie with Lizabeth Scott as a parole officer and Jane Greer as her parolee? Now you’re talking! Mildred Lynch (Greer) manages to soft-soap the prison board into thinking she’s on the straight-and-narrow so they grant her parole with the exception of the lone male member (James Bell), who doesn’t bother to vote because he’s outnumbered. (He doesn’t trust Greer…apparently he’s the only one in the group who saw Out of the Past [1947].) Mildred changes her name to Diane Stewart and gets a job as a night nurse in a hospital, but begins to chafe under the rules (she may be out, but she’s still doing time) and decides to repay parole officer Joan Wilburn (Scott) for her support and kindness by stealing her boyfriend. (To demonstrate how desperate Greer’s character is, the boyfriend is played by Dennis O’Keefe.) Things begin to get serious between Diane and her new beau, and Larry Collins (the beau) is so infatuated that he proposes to her. Will Joan maintain a professionalism and recommend to the board that Diane is perfectly capable of handling marriage—or will she stab that conniving little tramp in the back and send her back to The Big House?

As a rule, I try to keep endings murky in order not to spoil the experience for someone who hasn’t seen the movie—let me just say that I wasn’t wild about the direction Company takes because it requires a leap of faith that I wasn’t capable of making. Performance-wise, Greer is the reason to see this film; I like Lizabeth as a rule but she sometimes runs hot and cold with me; TCM showed The Racket (1951) and Dead Reckoning (1947) before Company and while I thought she was very convincing as a nightclub chanteuse in the former she’s simply not all that credible in the Bogart pic. (I was amused, however, by some of Scott and Greer’s scenes together in Company; Liz appears to be flirting with Janie at times.) Sharp-eyed OTR fans and character actor connoisseurs will spot Kenneth Tobey, Erskine Sanford, Snub Pollard, Theresa Harris, Paul Frees (as the judge’s clerk), Kathleen Freeman and Parley Baer (as the guy who offers to buy O’Keefe a drink) in brief bits; Beau Bridges is the obnoxious kid in the train station at Company’s end…and making his film debut is his brother Jeff as the infant Greer baby-sits briefly.


policomic said...

Ivan--long-time reader, first time commenter:

I stumbled upon "Shadow on the Wall" and got sucked into the story. Having never seen more than a few minutes of the future First Lady's acting (except for "The Next Voice You Hear," but I was too young to register any reaction other than "this is a reeeeeallly dumb movie"), I was surprised to find that she was not bad. As I was accustomed to seeing her as Ronnie's adoring wife and a symbol of "traditional family values," it was interesting seeing her play an assertive, independent professional woman. Casting aside, in fact, it struck me as a character type rarely glimpsed in that era, and not that common even now: a super-competent female doctor, who doesn't express any interest or regret in the direction of romance. What would Ronnie say?

I enjoy the blog; keep up the good work.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

Well, policomic, thanks always for encouraging my behavior and your opinion and thoughts are both well-taken and encouraged as well. I guess my bias towards the Nance comes from having seen her opposite her hubby in the notorious Hellcats of the Navy (1957), which I've never been quite able to shake (it's where "the Gaze" originated). Oh, and Reagan also put my father out of work, a subject that's still kind of tender twenty-five years after the fact.

Keep reading and don't be stingy with your observations!

The Derelict said...

Just discovered your blog through the Self-Styled Siren, and wanted to say how much I'm enjoying it. "Homicidal Maisie" had me cracking up for, literally, ten minutes. Perfect description of that movie!

I too was hoping for The Company She Keeps to take a different direction, but I guess it ends up working as a kind of flip-side to John Cromwell's other "ladies from prison" movie, Caged. In Caged, Eleanor Parker is destroyed by the prison system. But in The Company She Keeps we see what would have happened to the young female prisoner if the system had given her a chance. The two films work together as comparison/contrast message movies about the U.S. penal system (as it affected beautiful twentysomething female prisoners, anyway). ;)