Tuesday, June 26, 2012

William Wyler Blogathon: Dead End (1937)

 
Dead End:  an end of a road or passage from which no exit is possible

 

Pulitzer Prize winning playwright (Men in White) Sidney Kingsley’s Dead End was a Broadway triumph in 1935-37 seasons running for 687 performances.  Producer Samuel Goldwyn paid $165,000 for the film rights and the screenplay was adapted by Lillian Hellman.  There could only be one director for Goldwyn to bring so vividly to the screen the story of one day in a New York City slum when everything would change and everything would stay the same, William Wyler.  The distinguished Goldwyn-Wyler collaboration began the previous year with These Three the adaptation of Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour.  No matter the legendary clashes between Goldwyn and Wyler of personality or vision, the independent producer was driven to the highest standards of quality and quality is the hallmark of a William Wyler film.

 

Early consideration was given to filming Dead End on location in New York and while that would have given audiences a most interesting time capsule of the moment, it would have denied us the exquisitely intricate set from Oscar winner (for Whoopee!, The Black Angel, Dodsworth, This Above Hall, How Green Was My Valley, A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront) Richard Day.  Among the narrow streets, sudden alleyways, rickety docks and grimy tenements huddled beside a gleaming, luxurious apartment complex lives are played out for us.  Lives trapped in a dead end by circumstance, environment and character.  Wyler and his collaborator, the incomparable cinematographer Gregg Toland, take us to a dead end where darkness illuminates and sunshine is harsh. 
 
 Allen Jenkins, Charles Halton, Humphrey Bogart - waiting

 “It’s 80% script and 20% you get great actors.  There’s nothing else to it.” – William Wyler

 
Huntz Hall, Leo Gorcey, Gabe Dell - waiting

We get to know the kids on the street, the bad boys from destitute and abusive homes, the boys with no prospects and poor role models.  The youngsters are played by the original Broadway cast members and became known as the “Dead End Kids”.  Many will remain familiar faces to audiences under different guises as The East Side Kids and The Bowery Boys.  When they hit Hollywood with this film the out-of-control youths amused themselves in the boys will be boys vein which led Goldwyn to sell their contract to Warner Brothers.  After two years in the play the young actors had honed their archetypal characters to their essence.  The natural leader Tommy (Billy Halop), anxious to keep his position and about to outgrow his sister’s guidance.  “T.B.”, who’s been to reform school and knows a thing or two.  He has no fear.  What does he have to be afraid of, he has tuberculosis.  Sweet-faced Angel (Bobby Jordan) who already knows you have to look out for number one.  Shifty “Spit” (Leo Gorcey) who talks a big game but is a frightened boy inside.  “Dippy” (Huntz Hall) who survives with his own brand of humor and Milty, the new kid on the block who wants to fit in, who has to fit in.
 
Joel McCrea, Humphrey Bogart

The generation prior to this gang of kids is represented by Dave (Joel McCrea) and “Baby Face” Martin (Humphrey Bogart).  Dave has struggled for years to become an architect thinking that education and a career are the way out, but there’s a Depression and jobs, even for the right kind of people are hard to come by.  Yet it is not in Dave’s character to lose hope nor to give up on the neighborhood kids.  Whether they know it or not, want it or not, he is their protector.  McCrea plays Dave with a sincerity and an honest manliness that makes him believable in the midst of misery.

On the other hand, “Baby Face” is a success.  He’s one of the most wanted gangsters in the country, known to have killed at least eight men.  Martin found a way out so why is he back?  The money and how he got it weighs on Martin.  He’s looking for his innocence lost so long ago on this dead end.  He won’t find it from his mother (Marjorie Main from the original Broadway cast) or from his first sweetheart (Clair Trevor).  Each disappointment breaks Martin’s already mangled soul and makes him a meaner man.  Heartbreak and bitter resolve are etched on his craggy face.  Humphrey Bogart seemed to spend the 1930s proving his acting worth over and over again.  “Baby Face” Martin is one of his greatest achievements.

 
Sylvia Sidney

Women live on this block.  Tommy’s sister Drina (Sylvia Sidney) is here, but she’s not living as she wants.  She’s working for a better, cleaner someday for herself and her brother.  She’s on strike with fellow department store employees for better working conditions.  We see the good girl that Drina works so hard to be crumble in the face of fear for her brother and her poignant gushing forth of a long held girlish daydream of someone to take her way from all this.  Drina really wants Dave, but sadly sees his affection Kay (Wendy Barrie).

 
Wendy Barrie

Kay is part of the rick crowd that parties on their terraces that overlook the slums.  Road repairs are forcing the classes to mingle uncomfortably.  Kay already straddles both worlds as an attractive girl from humble circumstances who has accepted the protection of a wealthy man.  Love doesn’t enter into the relationship, only a well-founded fear of poverty.  Love, or something like it, is something Kay thinks she can have with Dave for a little while.  Although they don’t know each other, they would understand each other as Drina is coming to realize maybe you only get happiness, if you get it, for a little while.  Dave is still looking for always.

 
Humphrey Bogart, Claire Trevor

Francie thought she had found a way out or maybe she just gave in.  “Baby Face’s” teenage sweetheart has had it rough since he left for the big time.  She is a sick pathetic prostitute.  Claire Trevor’s one scene in Dead End earned her a most deserved Oscar nomination in the supporting category.  Unexpectedly face-to-face with her first love and his condemnation, we see the girl that was and the hustler she had to become, and we never forget Francie.

 
James Burke, Esther Dale

There are older women here on this block.  Marjorie Main as Mrs. Martin carrying the burden of a son gone wrong like a ball and chain.  Esther Dale as a slatternly busy-body not above stealing candy from a baby.  Fast forward a few years and these ladies become perfect comic foils as Ma Kettle and Birdie Hicks in the popular Ma and Pa Kettle series.  Dave’s mother played by Elisabeth Risdon retains a sweetness despite her surroundings.  Caftan Woman favourite Esther Howard has a bit as a sassy tenement resident, although I like to think of it as a cameo.

 
Billy Halop - watching and waiting

There are other men here as well and we know them by the expertise of their players.  Allen Jenkins is Martin’s loyal and pragmatic partner in crime.  James Burke as the cop who is no brighter than he needs to be.  Ward Bond as the officious doorman.  A lackey to the rich who sees himself as someone with a position.  Minor Watson as a monied man whose twit of a son was in more danger than just a beating by neighborhood toughs.  A man who thinks he is fair, but cannot see beyond theories to living and breathing humanity.

 
Humphrey Bogart, Thomas Jackson - life goes on

William Wyler was a director of great taste and judgment who appreciated the written word.  However, he was not able to articulate to his actors precisely what he wanted from them in any given scene.  Wyler’s “method” would be multiple takes until the actor was worn down to giving what he felt was the reality in the scene.

 

Speaking about the legend of the takes, William Wyler laughed “I may 6, 8 takes and it turns out to be 40.  Ha!  It’s true that I would make as many takes as were necessary to get the scene – to get it good”.

Mr. Wyler, it worked.

R.D. Finch, The Movie Projector hosts the William Wyler Blogathon June 24 – June 29 where you will find many excellent articles on exceptional films. 

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Richard Conte, King of Noir

Richard Conte
1910 - 1975


Nobility was born in Jersey City, New Jersey in 1910 when Richard Nicholas Peter Conte was born.  The one time truck driver and singing waiter studied at the famed Neighborhood Playhouse.  In 1939 Nicholas Conte made his Broadway debut in the short run Group Theater production My Heart's in the Highlands and made his film debut at Twentieth Century Fox in Heaven with a Barbed Wire Fence, by Dalton Trumbo, directed by Ricardo Cortez.  For the next few years the handsome and confident actor appeared in a number of popular war movies including Lewis Milestone's The Purple Heart and A Walk in the Sun, and Henry King's A Bell for Adano.  Richard Conte was trained in the Group Theater of the 1930s, a member of the Committee for the First Amendment in the 1950s and an honorary Rat Packer in the 1960s.  He was not defined by his group affiliations, but stood out as an individual.

It is the confidence with which Richard Conte imbued his roles in post-war crime dramas - many post-war crime dramas - that makes him the King of Noir.  It is not merely the number of titles that fall under the lauded style, but the quality and variety of the performances that gives Richard Conte the right to the crown.

 Richard Conte, Victor Mature

Cry of the City (1948)

Noir master Robert Siodmak directed Cry of the City.  Martin Rome (Conte) is a cop killer, a bad man.  He's also daring, charismatic and has a soft spot for his girl (Debra Paget).  Marty's mama loves him and his kid brother worships him.  The audience wants to like him, wants him to succeed and show us he's really a good guy at heart.  Lt. Candella (Victor Mature) knows Rome the way we, the audience, do not.  Candella grew up in the same circumstances, but chose the right side of the law.  Cry of the City is a movie full of sharp, sudden curves.  You start to think it will go one way and it takes you in unexpected directions to unexpected places.  Many people are against Martin Rome, but just as many want to help him and, as Lt. Candella says, "You forgot about them, did you?  No.  You didn't think about them at all."    
  

Richard Conte, Paul Valentine, Efrem Zimbalist Jr., Luther Adler

 House of Strangers (1949)

Joseph Mankieicz's directed the engrossing House of Strangers.  The strangers are the Monetti family ruled over by Papa Gino (Edward G. Robinson) who pits his four sons against each other as he holds onto the power of his banking business.  Only Max (Richard Conte) seems above it all.  He is independent with a wry sense of humour.  He stands back from the family while still loving them deeply.  Max builds a life away from the stifling influence of his father, yet when trouble comes it is Max's strong sense of loyalty that leads him to sacrifice his freedom for his father's sake and that sense of loyalty turns into an equally mighty need for vengeance.  Can Max remain true to himself in this House of Strangers?  


Richard Conte, Anne Baxter, Anne Sothern, Georges Reeves
 
The Blue Gardenia (1953)

Fritz Lang directed the murder mystery The Blue Gardenia.  It may not be the most difficult movie murder you've ever solved, but it has atmosphere, character to spare and a title song sung by Nat "King" Cole.  Three roommates (Ann Sothern, Jeff Donnell and Anne Baxter) band together when Baxter is accused of murdering a wolf in artist's clothing (Raymond Burr).  Reporter Casey Mayo (Richard Conte) is on the lookout for a good story and is also taken with the bright-eyed suspect.  Hey!  Richard Conte makes an excellent good guy.  Who knew?  He's tough enough and smart enough to play both the cops and the crooks, and charming enough to win the heart of any bright-eyed suspect.  Sigh.


Richard Conte, Cornel Wilde, Jay Adler

 The Big Combo (1955)

Joseph H. Lewis directed this film-noir classic concerning the obsessive Lt. Diamond (Cornel Wilde) and his pursuit of mob kingpin Mr. Brown (Richard Conte).   It is like a kick in the gut watching the sadistic Mr. Brown and the driven Lt. Diamond battling each other over the battered bodies and souls of all around them.  Conte's Mr. Brown is one of the great screen villains in his arrogance, disregard for others and joy he takes in violence.  Brown's philosophy is wrapped up in this exchange with the lieutenant:

"Diamond, the only trouble with you is, you'd like to be me. You'd like to have my organization, my influence, my fix. You can't. It's impossible. You think it's money, it's not. It's personality. You haven't got it, Lieutenant, you're a cop. Slow, steady, intelligent, with a bad temper, and a gun under your arm. And with a big yen for a girl you can't have. First is first, and second is nobody." 


 Mike Mazurki (at board), Richard Conte

New York Confidential (1955)

Russell Rouse wrote (with Clarence Greene) and directed New York Confidential which exposes the business of organized crime.  Richard Conte is Nick Magellan, a loyal company man who is the best at his job.  His job is hit man and his company is the syndicate.  Magellan's confidence comes from being good at his job.  This character shows none of the arrogance and sadism of Mr. Brown in The Big Combo made the same year.  Nick has a similar philosophy in that he has seen the world for what it is and a man should take what he can.  Nick is also single-minded when it comes to loyalty to the firm.  It is the number one guiding principle of his life.  However, Nick's views are shaken when he meets his boss' (Broderick Crawford) fiery daughter Kathy Lupo (Ann Bancroft).  Kathy wants nothing more than to escape from her mobster father and live a simple life on her own.  Her very desperation and yearning touch Nick.  He doesn't understand it, but he feels it and in the only disloyal to the firm act of his life actually tries to help Cathy. 


Paul Picerni, Richard Conte

The Brothers Rico (1957)

Another noir master, Phil Karlson, directed The Brothers Rico based on a Georges Simenon story.  Conte is Eddie Rico, former mob accountant who is brought back into the life when his brothers (Paul Picerni, James Darren) run afoul of the gang.  Conte wants to be a regular guy, but he can bring out the cunning tough guy to protect his family in what is a desperate struggle.  Some people are just too stubborn to give up no matter what the odds.


Other film-noir titles featuring equally impressive performances from Richard Conte include Somewhere in the Night, Call Northside 777, Thieves Highway, Whirlpool, The Sleeping City, Under the Gun, Hollywood Story, The Raging Tide, Highway Dragnet and The Big Tip Off.  Initially considered for the role of Don Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather, Conte instead played Don Barzini after Marlon Brando was given the title role.

Many actors and their fans can make a claim to royal titles in the land of film-noir.  Among the Dukes, Counts and Earls are the cynical Humphrey Bogart, the cool Robert Mitchum, the edgy Robert Ryan.  And let's not forget Viscount Dan Duryea.  However, there can only be one King, and the King of Noir is Richard Conte.


Friday, June 1, 2012

Caftan Woman's Choice: One for June on TCM

John Ford's 1948 epic Fort Apache is based on the short story Massacre by James Warner Bellah with a screenplay by Frank Nugent.  Tremendous research went into this post-war production with its cavalry setting and myriad of characters.  Following his experiences in WW2 director Ford felt a special bond with the military and the day-to-day life of soldiers and wanted to impart that feeling to the screen.  

Fort Apache tells the story of a Custer-like officer, Colonel Owen Thursday played by Henry Fonda (The Grapes of Wrath).  Col. Thursday feels he has been dismissed politically by a posting in the west with no chance for advancement and glory.  He is an arrogant man, dismissive of others not of his class.  He is ignorant of the native population and unwilling to learn.  20-year-old Shirley Temple (Wee Willie Winkie) plays the colonel's daughter, Philadelphia Thursday.  While the straight-backed Thursday makes an cold first impression with those at the fort, Philadelphia, all dimples, smiles and heart on her sleeve is an instant favourite.  In turn, she is smitten with the newly-minted Lieutenant O'Rourke played by real-life husband at the time John Agar.  The young lieutenant is the pet of the fort being the son of Sergeant Major O'Rourke played by Ward Bond (The Fugitive).  

 
 Shirley Temple, Ward Bond, Irene Rich, Henry Fonda

Fort Apache is the story of the people in it.  The ladies of the fort include Anna Lee (How Green Was My Valley) as Mrs. Collingwood and Irene Rich (Desperate Trails) as Mrs. O'Rourke.  They represent home and stability, and perhaps the future for young Philadelphia. 
 
Grant Withers, Victor McLaglen, John Wayne, Henry Fonda
George O'Brien, Miguel Inclan, Pedro Armendariz

Captain Collingwood played by George O'Brien (The Iron Horse) had been expected to become commander of Fort Apache and has a checkered career and history with Thursday.  Captain York played by John Wayne (Stagecoach) is an officer who came up through the ranks with a knowledge of the frontier gained from experience.  Conflicts naturally arise between the by-the-book Thursday and men who have adapted to a rough life outside of the text books.


Shirley Temple, John Agar, Anna Lee, John Wayne
Guy Kibbee, Dick Foran

One of the things I enjoy most about a Ford picture, particularly those with a Nugent screenplay, is that they bring us into a society fully formed to make of it what we will.  Complete biographies for the characters were created before the screenplay was begun and the audience is respected enough to be able to understand the nuances of the dialogue and the shared look among characters.  Of course, being a Ford picture we also have, as in life, humour and music.  It feels absolutely right that a character like Thursday, so hide bound, can be surrounded by the rollicking humour of the sergeants and the recruits.  Although, give him his due, Thursday has one of the funniest lines in the movie when dealing with the larcenous sutler Meachan played by Grant Withers.  The charming musical interlude in Fort Apache is provided by Dick Foran lending his whisky soaked tenor to Sweet Genevieve.


 John Wayne as Kirby York

Archie Stout and William Clothier are the cinematographers who worked on Fort Apache and there are scenes in the desert which are absolutely breathtaking.  I had seen the film quite a few times before realizing how beautiful it is visually.  Fort Apache gives much for the viewer to absorb.  It is an historical piece.  It is a character study.  Perhaps Thursday and York had much they needed to learn from the other.  It has vivid and heartbreaking action.  Fort Apache is full of noble sentiments, and the triumphs and tragedies of every day people.  The stirring epilogue is Ford's presentation to us of when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.  Whether it is for good or not, the legend propels us forward.  

TCM is airing Fort Apache on Sunday, June 17th at 10:30 pm.