Saturday, September 5, 2009

Movies that I’ve stared at recently on TCM #35 (Edward Dmytryk edition)

Yesterday, Turner Classic Movies celebrated what would have been the 101st birthday of director Edward Dmytryk with a mini-marathon of his films beginning at 6am. Since I’d already seen a good many of them, including Hitler's Children (1943), Cornered (1945) and Till the End of Time (1946)—the first two of which may be subjects of future Region 2 Cinema posts—I decided to record and watch some that I had not seen (the exception here being The Falcon Strikes Back—which I saw many years ago but just felt the need to revisit after seeing the first film in the Falcon series, The Gay Falcon, on Tuesday). (Warning: spoilers ahead)

Seven Miles from Alcatraz (1942) – After a long apprenticeship at Columbia, this wartime propaganda quickie was Dmytryk’s debut at R-K-O, and stars James Craig and Frank Jenks as a pair of escapees from “The Rock” who take over a lighthouse run by George “Gramps” Cleveland, daughter Bonita “Nancy Drew” Granville, comic relief sidekick Cliff “Ukelele Ike” Edwards and naval officer Erford “I’ve run out of nicknames” Gage. Cleveland never misses a chance to lecture Craig about the convict’s isolationist status, stressing that with the war on it’s every American’s duty to pitch in; fellow con Jenks leans more toward Cleveland’s line of thinking—believing “We’re hoodlums, but we’re American hoodlums.” But Craig begins changing his tune when he and Jenks learn that Gage (who was shot and killed trying to get to the boat the two inmates need to escape) was a Nazi spy when three German visitors (Tala Birell, John Banner, Otto Reichow) who had planned to flee to the safety of a waiting Nazi sub show up uninvited.

Alcatraz is far-fetched silliness but since it moves along so fast (its total running time is 62 minutes) it’s relatively easy-to-take; Craig’s character will get on your nerves after a while (he’s kind of the poor man’s Sterling Hayden) but the always dependable Granville, Cleveland and Edwards deliver the goods. The most interesting participant is Banner—the same Banner who played Sergeant Schultz on Hogan’s Heroes—who’s the youngest and thinnest I’ve ever seen him; he looks like the love child of Jerome Cowan and Bill Murray, and he has a laugh-out-loud moment when he tells Birell and Reichow to stop grilling Craig on the whereabouts of some documents of theirs the prisoner has hid with “There is no time to convert the man to national socialism.” All in all, it’s kind of hard to dislike a movie in which its lead remarks in voice-over: “It’s no cinch breaking out of ‘The Rock,’ war or no war—and we’re not gonna tell you how we did it…that’s a professional secret.” (Translation: “Our writers simply aren’t that clever.”)

The Falcon Strikes Back (1943) – Tom Lawrence (Tom Conway) wakes up in his apartment bedroom with a massive hangover, and receives a visit from a woman (Rita Corday) who desperately needs his help…pulling a gun on him to convince him that time is of the essence. He follows her to a cocktail bar, where he’s sapped on the back of his skull…and wakes up in his car; the back end riddled with bullets and comedy relief cops Ed Gargan and Cliff Clark accusing him of a $250,000 theft of war bonds. On the trail of the real murderer/thief, Lawrence and sidekick Goldie Locke (Cliff Edwards) arrive at a rustic resort run by Harriet Hilliard (Nelson)—and I’d just like to say here that before she started having adventures with husband Ozzie on radio and later TV, Ricky’s mom had got it going on. It’s here at the swanky hotel that Corday is murdered in the resort’s swimming pool, and the suspects include Hilliard, wheelchair-bound Andre Charlot, Charlot’s manservant Erford Gage and puppeteer Edgar Kennedy. The late Jane Randolph is also on hand as a reporter constantly squabbling in screwball comedy-fashion with the Falcon.

The Falcon Strikes Back is one of the better entries in R-K-O’s Falcon franchise, with some snappy dialogue equally partialed out among the principals (Harriet tells Jane “I’m delighted” when the two women are introduced to one another—“You’re one up on me” Jane hisses back); particularly Edwards, whose character has to suffer the indignity of pretending to be the resort’s house detective as Conway diligently tries to find the killer. Again, one might say brevity is the soul of wit—the flick runs 68 minutes and contains a couple of funny cameos from Frank Faylen and Jack Norton as hobos who rouse Conway out of his unconscious slumber in his automobile…and a brief appearance from Jean Brooks, who would co-star in the next entry in the series, The Falcon in Danger (1943).

So Well Remembered (1947) – A wonderful film that’s only too rarely shown, Remembered tells in flashback the story of George Boswell (John Mills, in a truly outstanding performance), a newspaper publisher and alderman (and later mayor) in a small English mining town whose tireless efforts to provide decent living and working conditions for the village’s inhabitants continue to be derailed by his selfish, ambitious wife Olivia (Martha Scott)—a monstrous woman who seems to possess no soul and whose father (Frederick Leister) bears in a small way responsibility for the deplorable circumstances in which the townsfolk have found themselves. The social-climbing Olivia makes fast friends with a businessman named Trevor Mangin (Reginald Tate), whose slums threaten to breed an outbreak of diphtheria; he convinces George to issue a report to the town’s council—saying the chances of such an epidemic are remote—in lieu of a report written by Boswell’s best friend, a doctor (Trevor Howard) whose attraction to strong drink has cast aspersions on his competency. Drunkard or no, Dr. Richard Whiteside’s suspicions are correct and the town finds itself fighting such an outbreak—an epidemic that takes the life of Boswell’s young son when Olivia refuses to have him vaccinated at the town’s free clinic.

Devastated when his wife leaves him after the death of their son, Boswell continues to throw himself into his work championing the unfortunate but the wretched Olivia comes back into his life once more when her new husband’s son—a WW2 veteran (Richard Carlson) suffering from facial scars—falls in love with Whiteside’s adopted daughter Julie (Patricia Roc). It is only when Whiteside tells him the truth about the events that happened the night George proposed to Olivia (an automobile crash killed her father and left Whiteside injured) that Boswell is roused to defy Olivia by arranging for the couple to be married.

I am a huge fan of John Mills, and his character here is one of the most memorable of his career; a quiet, reserved man with a gentle wit whose dedication to bettering the lives of those around him makes him an individual you can’t help but admire (I love both his Northern accent and his habit of saying “Aye” in practically every sentence he starts). Scott is also fantastic as the soulless Olivia, and Howard aces as Mills’ loyal friend (playing the type of inebriate rarely seen on screen today for fear of offending people’s tender sensibilities). The only real weak link here is Carlson as Charles Winslow (Olivia’s son), who always did have a somewhat limited range, and though the movie will keep you in thrall right up to the anticipated confrontation between Mills and Scott a little trimming here and there wouldn’t have hurt much. Both of Mills’ daughters appear in Remembered: Juliet plays Julie at a young age and Hayley plays her as an infant; author James Hilton (who wrote the novel on which the movie is based) provides the narration.


Tom Sutpen said...

So Well Remembered (1947) – A wonderful film that’s only too rarely shown (though the explanation for that is that it was thought to be lost for many years but was rediscovered in 2004)

Are you sure you're not thinking of Dmytryk's Christ in Concrete (aka Give Us This Day; 1949)? I first saw So Well Remembered back in the late 80s on the TNT network (Turner's first movie-drenched channel, which now runs the same godawful programming hodgepodge every other cable network runs), then later on TCM, where it played with reasonable regularity prior to '04. Christ in Concrete, on the other hand, was made in Great Britain after Dmytryk served his Contempt of Congress stretch and thus was instantly targeted by the American Legion; harassment which got so bad that those stand-up, men of honor at Eagle-Lion Films pulled it from distribution within a month. It was never sold to television and, far as I know, was never subsequently screened. People literally seemed to have forgotten that it existed.

Both films were never Lost-lost . . . not lost in the Convention City, London After Midnight sense . . . but Christ in Concrete was so deeply neglected (it's Dmytryk's last overtly Leftist film, and possibly his last flat-out masterpiece) that only in the last year or two has it received even a modicum of attention (DVD release, etc.).

But . . . I'm also pretty sure that rediscovery occurred after 2004.

Can't keep track'a this stuff sometimes.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

Well, since the source (the IMDb) I consulted about the "rediscovery" of Remembered is more than a little suspect, I went ahead and excised the reference and am going on your information, Brother Tom. You'd be in a position to know about this more than I would.

On the other hand, now I want to see Christ in Concrete. So it's nice to see something positive come out of this experience.