City for Conquest (1940) – Mom and I have been making our way through many of the DVD entries from Warner Home Video’s Gangsters/Tough Guys boxed set collections and I put this one on for her yesterday. James Cagney plays truck driver Danny Kenny—a working class Joe content with his lot in life but who gets involved in the boxing racket (under the tutelage of manager Scotty MacPherson, played by Donald Crisp) in order to raise the necessary scratch to help his younger brother Eddie (Arthur Kennedy) continue his musical education. Danny’s girlfriend Peggy (Ann Sheridan) is also filled with ambition; she longs to be a professional dancer and gets her wish by partnering up with a skeevy gigolo hoofer named Murray Burns (Anthony Quinn). Danny’s boxing career comes to a screeching halt when he runs afoul of crooked fight promoters (led by Jerome Cowan) who arrange for him to be blinded in a bout (his opponent has resin dust on his gloves, which is rubbed into Danny’s eyes at every opportunity) and from that point on he must live vicariously through the successes of his “kid bruddah” and “goil.” Mom thought Conquest was swell (if sad), but personally, I think the film’s a bit sappy—it has a tendency to come across as a parody of Warner Brothers films. Film buffs might get a kick out of seeing director Elia Kazan in one of his rare onscreen performances (as a racketeer named “Googi”); the usual WB suspects also turn up: Frank McHugh, George Tobias, Lee Patrick, Thurston Hall and Scrubbles.net fave Joyce Compton.
A Slight Case of Murder (1938) – Two of my favorite character actors appear in this black comedy that allows Edward G. Robinson to spoof his gangster image: Edward Brophy, who played more movie henchmen/stooges that you can shake a stick at (and who’s best known as the voice of Timothy Q. Mouse, the rodent sidekick in Dumbo ), and Ruth Donnelly—whose comedic shifting back-and-forth from refined dowager to tough-talking dame in Murder is the real reason why you should see this film. Eddie G. is Remy Marco (and yes, he often refers to himself in the third person), a bootlegger who’s gone legit but who’s also helplessly watching his beer business go bust (on account on his brew being undrinkable). He’s just arrived at his rented mansion with wife Donnelly and daughter Jane Bryan (and Bobby Jordan, an orphan on loan) to discover four corpses on the premises—so he enlists the help of his stooges (Brophy, Allen Jenkins, Harold Huber) to get rid of the bodies before his would-be son-in-law (Willard Parker)—a state trooper, no less—finds out. Murder is one of my favorite Robinson films (ironically, it was not particularly loved by its star…who felt the film’s director, Lloyd Bacon, rushed through the material); a frenetic, falling-down-funny farce that contains first-rate performances from its entire cast—but make sure you stick with the original, and avoid the 1952 musical remake Stop, You're Killing Me. Mom also got a big kick out of this one, in addition to Kid Galahad (1937).
Background to Danger (1943) – George Raft isn’t much of an actor…but when it comes to 1940s action pictures, believe me; you could do a lot worse. He’s Joe Barton in this rousing WW2 actioner, an undercover intelligence agent who must match wits against formidable Nazi agent Colonel Robinson (Sydney Greenstreet), a no-goodnik seeking to nudge neutral Turkey into the war—but can Joe trust “brother-and-sister” operatives Tamara (Brenda Marshall) and Nikolai Zaleshoff (Peter Lorre), who claim to be on his side? Danger is an entertaining little vehicle that wisely doesn’t aspire to be anything beyond a Casablanca cash-in (based on an Eric Ambler novel), and director Raoul Walsh maintains a breakneck pace worthy of any Republic serial—in addition, Greenstreet makes for a fearsome villain and it’s intriguing to see Lorre on the right side of the law for a change. Ona Massen, Turhan Bey (as Raft’s sidekick), Willard Robertson and Kurt Katch round out the supporting cast.
The House Across the Bay (1940) – I was really looking forward to watching this on TCM the other night but I must sadly report the experience wasn’t as positive as I had hoped it would be. George Raft is Steve Larwitt, a racketeer who ends up in the slammer a la Al Capone for income tax irregularities; his wife, nightclub chanteuse Brenda “Lucky” Bentley (Joan Bennett), is responsible for Steve’s extended stay because she ratted him out to the government in an effort to keep him out of harm’s way (from a rival gangster). Brenda took the advice of Steve’s crooked attorney, Slant Kolma (Lloyd Nolan)—and if we’ve learned nothing from this movie, it’s that you never seek counsel from a lawyer named “Slant”—who’s got romantic designs on Bren…but she’s fallen hard for aircraft designer Tim Nolan (Walter Pidgeon) in the interim.
As I previously stated—you don’t watch a George Raft film for his thespic talents, but he’s better-than-usual in this vehicle…except that he’s missing from most of the action, due to the necessities of the plot. Bay is first and foremost a showcase for Joan (the film was put together by her hubby, independent producer Walter Wanger) who’s breathtakingly lovely here—and Man Hunt fans might get a kick out of seeing Pidgeon and Bennett in early romantic negotiations. The main weakness with Bay is that it requires Raft’s character to “bust out” of the joint towards the end, and since Georgie has a reservation at Alcatraz (the film’s title refers to an apartment that Bennett is renting, allowing her a first-rate view of Raft’s new environs) his escape is none-too-plausible (particularly since his roommate isn’t Clint Eastwood)…and neither is his “noble” sacrifice at film’s end. Gladys George has a few good scenes doing what she does best (her patented drunk floozy act) but other than that Bay isn’t something you need to drop anything for.