Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Movies that I’ve stared at recently on TCM #28 (Latino Images in Film edition)

The Lawless (1950) – I kind of wish I had thought to record this one because I really enjoyed this ambitious-if-flawed Joseph Losey film, produced by William H. Pine and William C. Thomas (Paramount’s legendary “Dollar” Bills) and based on a novel (The Voice of Stephen Wilder) by Daniel Mainwaring (who wrote the screenplay under his familiar nom de plume, Geoffrey Homes). MacDonald Carey is Larry Wilder, a crusading newspaper man who starts up a paper in a small California town beset by racial troubles between the area’s fruit pickers (most of whom are Mexican) and white residents who look down on them in disdain. At a dance that is scheduled to promote “good fellowship;” a few troublemakers crash the party and a fight breaks out which results in one Hispanic boy, Paul Rodriguez (Lalo Rios), fleeing the scene after punching out a cop by swiping an ice cream truck (which I thought made for a novel chase sequence) and the death of another after Rodriguez is picked up and the patrol car in which he’s riding in goes off the road and explodes in a culvert (Paul manages to escape, and the only other survivor is the cop he punched out earlier—who tells everyone the car crash was the young Latino’s fault).

But Paul’s not out of the woods yet—in his flight, he ends up startling a young girl (Gloria Winters) in her barn and she knocks herself out on a beam…and when she comes to, the story gets out that Rodriguez tried to have his way with her (you know how hot-blooded Latinos are). Stirred up by prejudice and a perverse sense of justice, several of the townspeople go on the hunt for Paul—who’s discovered in the nick of time by Wilder. Although other newspapers are printing nothing but scandal and innuendo about the incident, Wilder attempts to set the record straight…resulting in an angry mob swooping in and destroying his office (the press, etc.). Wilder decides that he has no place in this town…but changes his mind when a conversation with Paul reveals that Wilder was able to make a small difference.

Lawless was Losey’s second feature film, and though there are a lot of dated elements on display here (along with a pronounced anti-HUAC attitude) it’s extremely well-done (I think Losey manages to present a lot of the small-town elements—the shabby dance-hall, the “one-horse” newspaper office—in fine detail) with some nice acting turns by Carey, Gail Russell (one of my favorite underrated actresses, who unfortunately had to be dunked into a vat of Cover Girl Latina #12 to pull off her Hispanic masquerade), John Hoyt (as the sympathetic liberal—a change of pace for an actor who usually played unapologetic assholes), Lee Patrick (as a shameless reporter exploiting the incident in a negative fashion) and Herbert Anderson as Carey’s star reporter…who’s billed here as “Guy Anderson,” no doubt because people say upon seeing him: “Hey—that’s the guy who played the dad on Dennis the Menace.” Tab Hunter has a bit part in this one, as does Frank Ferguson (a quick scene as a concerned lawyer)…and Willard “The Great Gildersleeve” Waterman, who plays the dad of one of the delinquents.

Trial (1955) – With a somewhat-similar plot to The Lawless (a young Hispanic boy [Rafael Compos]) finds himself accused of the murder of a young white girl), this time Glenn Ford must be the liberal white guy who comes to the rescue; he’s David Blake, a law school professor who’s been informed that his contract has not been renewed for the fall term and is told that if he can get some courtroom experience over the summer he might be able to save his job. After being turned down by attorney after attorney, crusading lawyer Barney Castle (Arthur Kennedy) agrees to take him on—Castle is already working on Angel Chavez’ defense and decides that Blake will try the case in court while he does the important work of raising money for the defense. Aided and assisted by Castle’s secretary, Abbe Nyle (Dorothy McGuire), Blake assembles a first-rate defense but then learns to his horror that Angel isn’t supposed to be found innocent—Castle is using the boy as a martyr to generate funds for various subversive causes…in other words, Barney’s a Commie rat!

The screenplay for Trial was written by Don Mankiewicz, who also penned the original novel (and who ended up having to make a few changes to satisfy M-G-M—including transforming the film into a pro-McCarthy polemic, whereas the novel presented both sides in fairly-even fashion) and for the most part it’s a very dynamic piece of filmmaking until its conclusion, which is a tremendous cop-out. In addition to the leads, there are also outstanding performances from TDOY fave Juano Hernandez, Katy Jurado (who is unfortunately not shown to good fashion), John Hoyt (who’s more in his element here as a rabid anti-Communist/shit disturber), John Hodiak, Elisha Cook, Jr. and Robert Middleton. It’s really Arthur Kennedy’s show overall; he plays a man completely without scruples and willing to sacrifice his client by deliberately bungling his defense (I guess that’s the kind of toll Communism takes on folks). Kennedy copped an Oscar nom for his performance, and though he lost to Jack Lemmon at least he settled for the consolation prize of a Golden Globe.

The Young Savages (1961) – In what surely was the stand-out novelty of last night’s “Let’s-fry-the-innocent-Hispanic-delinquent” festival, this time it’s a group of Italian j.d.’s in trouble—particularly since they knifed a blind Puerto Rican boy and Assistant D.A. Hank Bell (actually Bellini, and played by Burt Lancaster) is prosecuting the case. (If there’s anything I’ve learned in the many decades that I’ve been watching movies—you do not piss off Burt Lancaster.) Bell’s been assigned to the case because the D.A. (played in appropriately slimy fashion by Edward Andrews) is looking to ride that baby into the governor’s mansion, and Bell is what they call in the legal biz as a “team player.”

But Bell also has a bit of integrity, and as he investigates the case (with police lieutenant Telly Savalas, whose performance is a standout) he learns that the facts aren’t necessarily what they seem to be. One of the kids arrested for the stabbing is the son of an old flame (Shelley Winters…who, in a nifty coinky-dink, was an old flame of Lancaster’s in real life), and she has a young Latino boy relate to Bell an incident of how her son saved another Hispanic kid from drowning in the community pool…Shelley asks how is it possible for a kid to be that charitable one moment and a cold-blooded killer the next? Burt gets additional prodding from his wife (Dina Merrill), a do-gooder liberal who’s sickened at the thought of her hubby pulling the electric chair’s switch on these misunderstood lads and makes a few inappropriate remarks at a party being thrown for Andrews’ campaign (I like Lancaster’s line: “She majored in sarcasm at Vassar.”). Later, it is revealed that the deceased Puerto Rican kid and his sister (the state’s star witness) are not the paragons of virtue they appear to be; though blind, he was a major player in the gang to which he belonged and she’s been working the streets (with Blind Boy as her pimp).

Savages concludes with a fiery courtroom confrontation in which Burt (after reading a report that sheds new light on the evidence in the case) ends up winning leniency for the three hoods and while the film gets a kudo or two for not concluding with a pat ending it does sort of give the deceased short shrift (his mother’s plea for justice for her son is particularly heart-rendering). Savages’ screenplay was written by Edward Anhalt and J.P. Miller, who adapted the novel A Matter of Conviction written by Evan Hunter (the same author who brought audiences in 1955 a novel that was adapted into one of the most memorable j.d. pictures, Blackboard Jungle).

1 comment:

Laura said...

Enjoyed your thoughts on THE LAWLESS, which I have recorded for future viewing. I'm a Gail Russell fan as well. :)

Have also been enjoying your reviews of your other recent TCM viewing! Your review of TORTILLA FLAT cracked me up.

Best wishes,
Laura