(This is a new feature: items worth noting about classic films, performers, ets.)
There's a little streaming channel called My Retro Flix (available through Roku) which has just added the excellent 1947 Western Ramrod, directed by Andre De Toth, and starring Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake, Donald Crisp, Charles Ruggles, Preston Foster, Arleen Whelan, and a scene stealing Don Defore in a role miles away from his suburban dad in the 1950's sitcom Hazel. From a story by classic Western novelist Luke Short, this is an adult, definitely postwar story.

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03 November 2018

The Mask of Dimitrios: Mysterious, Glamorous European Noir

Film Noir is one of the best-known and most popular film genres. From the mid-thirties to the mid-fifties, these suspenseful, often gritty stories of dwellers in the shadows -- the shadows thoughtfully provided by black and white photography inspired by German expressionism -- provided a welcome counterpoint of cynicism to the cheery melody of popular films.

Though mainly an urban genre, Noir can be set anywhere, including on trains or boats taking the protagonist(s) from one setting to another. A whole sub-genre of Film Noir existed, most notably at Warner Brothers, from 1938 through 1955. I would call this Swanky European Noir, because it usually depends on an atmosphere of dark, multi-lingual exoticism barely comprehensible to innocent, straightforward Americans. This would include wartime spy movies, but also films from those pre-war years when everyone knew something bad was coming (and soon), and the immediate post-war years (see list at the end).

But the king of this types of film, and the most sterling example of all, is The Mask of Dimitrios, directed by the versatile Jean Negulesco, and starring Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Zachary Scott, Faye Emerson, Stephan Geray, and Victor Francen, among many others. It is an excellent adaptation of Eric Ambler's bestselling novel A Coffin for Dimitrios (a very good read, by the way).

Peter Lorre plays Cornelius Leyden -- a normal person
The screenplay follows the unusual structure of the novel, which all seen from the point of view of Cornelius Leyden (Peter Lorre), a Dutch professor who has retired from teaching after writing a bestselling mystery novel. He uses the proceeds of his success to travel around Europe. While visiting Istanbul, Turkey, he comes across the story of a notorious criminal called Dimitrios Makropolos. He becomes acquainted with a police inspector, Colonel Haki (a character who appears in other Ambler novels and is in fact played by Orson Welles in Journey Into Fear), who describes his own efforts to track down Dimitrios. The character of Dimitrios begins to fascinate Leyden; from here on, the whole story is told to him by different people he meets while pursuing his researches.

Leyden meets Haki
Noirs of any sort often feature a guide for the audience in the form of an innocent  bystander who gets caught up in the noir underworld; in European this is frequently an American contending with ancient and labrynthine European ways, like Joseph Cotton's Holley in The Third Man. It is really refreshing to see Peter Lorre playing a normal person -- well, his Mr. Leyden is more thoughtful, curious, and perceptive than average, but he is completely honest and trustworthy. The more he finds out about Dimitrios' cruelty and duplicity, the more horrified he becomes.The film wanders all over unusual corners of Europe -- not just Paris, Berlin, or London, but Yugoslavia, Turkey, Bulgaria, places little known to average Americans. Or average Dutchmen like Leyden, who gamely follows the increasingly harrowing path of crime and corruption. 

The young Dimitrios
Leyden follows Dimitrios' trail to Sophia, in Bulgaria. On the way he meets Mr. Peters (Sydney Greenstreet), apparently by chance, who turns out to have an even more eager interest in Dimitrios' whereabouts. What Leyden discovers in Sophia is a tale of betrayal, exploitation, and blackmail, recounted by a notorious queen of the underworld (Faye Emerson) in her sleazy nightclub. We see her in flashback as a beautiful young woman whose life was ruined by Dimitrios.

Exotic and foreign but still sleazy
Peters directs Leyden to Mr. Grudek (Victor Francen), in Yugoslavia. This leads to a delightful scene between Lorre and Francen, portraying two men of the world, more truly sophisticated than even the most urbane of American characters in most films of this era.

Leyden and Mr. Peters "meet cute"

Grudek appears to be a gentleman of leisure who, ensconced in a historic chateau, is spending his retirement writing a religious biography. But the life he retired from was as one of Europe's top spymasters. After taking a moment to introduce Leyden to his two lovely Siamese cats, Grudek tells him another cnapter in Dimitrios' career of destruction. This is the longest and the most tragic episode, as Dimitrios cleverly and relentlessly traps an innocent government clerk (beautifully played by Steven Geray) into betraying his country.

Leyden and Grudek with Heloise and Abelard

The final incident in Paris explains Mr. Peters' interest; as it turns out, he was one of a group of people tricked by Dimitrios into taking the fall for an international criminal fraud, sending him to jail and ruining his life, while Dimitrios himself, naturally, got off scott-free.  Peters is convinced that Dimitrios is still alive. His only interest in life now is revenge. Leyden, despite some skirmishes, has become fond of Mr. Peters, and agrees to help him try to trap Dimitrios if possible. To his horror, it is, and he comes face to face with the criminal whose career he now knows so well. His reaction surprises him as much as it does Dimitrios.

The final conforntation

This movie is endlessly entertaining, a combination of exotic (but shadowy) foreign backgrounds, a subtle, well-informed script, and truly wonderful acting by Lorre, Greenstreet, and Zachary Scott as the wily and heartless Dimitrios, who prowls through civilized society like an amoral predator, with no respect, no ethics, no beliefs, and no affections or ties of any kind to weigh him down, shocking even experienced crime fighters like Col. Haki with his complete selfishness. This, of course, is eventually his downfall.

This movie takes place well before World War 2, and has no direct connection to the rise of the Nazis; but the contrast between the brutal, unfeeling, power-mad Dimitrios and the decent, cultured, ethical, and unsuspecting victims he leaves in his wake is pointed. It's a twofold warning -- first, that a psychopath like Dimitrios is an outlier to the run of humanity, and his advent couldn't really be predicted, and, second, that it could recur at any time, without warning. Like Fascism.

Here are some of my favorite Swanky European Noirs:

Escape, a great film starring Norma Shearer, Robert Taylor, and Conrad Veidt,
Rage In Heaven, with Ingrid Bergman, George Sanders, and Robert Montgomery,
A Woman's Face, with Joan Crawford, Melvyn Douglas, and the invaluable Conrad Veidt,
One Night in Lisbon, with Fred MacMurray and Madeline Carroll,
Suspicion, with Joan Fontaine and Cary Grant,
Journey Into Fear, with Joseph Cotton and Dolores Del Rio,
Background to Danger, with George Raft and Brenda Marshall,Lifeboat, with Tallulah Bankhead and John Hodiak,
The Seventh Cross, with Spencer Tracy and Hume Cronyn,
The Conspirators, with Hedy Lamarr and Paul Henreid
In Our Time, Ida Lupino and Paul Henreid
Ministry of Fear, with Ray Milland
Confidential Agent, Charles Boyer and Lauren Bacall
Deception, with Bette Davis, Claude Rains, and Paul Henreid
Three Strangers, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Joan Lorring
Lured, with Lucille Ball and George Sanders
Arch of Triumph, Charles Boyer, Charles Laughton, Ingrid Bergman
Berlin Express, Merle Oberon, Robert Ryan
A  Foreign Affair, Marlene Dietrich, Jean Arthur
Sealed Verdict, Ray Milland
The Third Man, with Joseph Cotton, Orson Welles, Trevor Howard
Deported, Jeff Chandler and Marta Toren

20 October 2018

KIng Creole: Was Elvis a Movie Star?

Elvis easily joins in a New Orleans street vendor's call

From the beginning, rock stars have been seen as subjects for quick exploitation, which led to dozens of cheap quickie movies with little to recommend them today except the chance to glimpse some long gone artists. Fortunately for Elvis and all of us, with King Creole producer Hal Wallis decided to create a quality product, with a very suitable story by best-selling novelist Harold Robbins, and a more than competent cast featuring Carolyn Jones, Vic Morrow, Dean Jagger, Paul Stewart, and a superb Walter Matthau. Best of all, he  enlisted veteran director Michael Curtiz. 

You can see this is going to be a damn good movie from the first minute, as Elvis, completely alert and together, joins a New Orleans street vendor (Kitty White) in her traditional cry of "Crawfish for sale!" With his usual mysterious (because, after all, he was Hungarian) grasp of American folkways and rhythms, Curtiz takes advantage of the exotic, hip, and jazzy atmosphere of the city, with its inevitable undertone of danger, and links Elvis' distinctive style to it naturally.

This is a musical drams, not a musical comedy. Elvis is entirely convincing as Danny Fisher, a teenager struggling with school, family and money problems These include temptations of sex, in the person of Carolyn Jones, and crime, first from teen thug Vic Morrow, then a scarily cold-hearted Matthau, complicating his existence. Danny and his sister, Mimi (Jan Shepard), work to keep their family together after their mother's death seems to have completely devastated their father (Dean Jagger). Danny briefly gets involved with a small gang of punks, headed by Shark (Morrow), including a mute called Dummy (Jack Grinnage), who he protects from the others. He is thrown out of school, gets involved with a mobster's girlfriend, and reluctantly takes part in a robbery; his life seems to be unraveling.

Maxie's girlfriend Ronnie is troubled and dangerous to know
Another 1950's phenomenon plagues Danny -- like James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, he is torn between love and scorn for a father he sees as being painfully emasculated. Elvis is very good conveying the simmering anger and resentment powering his explosive talent. For,fortunately, just when he needs it most, and after a blistering impromptu rendition of Leiber and Stoller's "Trouble," Danny is offered a job singing "folk songs" in a Bourbon Street dive. Of course, he becomes a huge hit.

Danny hits one out of the park with Leiber and Stoller's "Trouble"
Unfortunately, this just causes Danny more trouble, because mobster Maxie Fields has attained a stranglehold over almost all the venues on Bourbon Street. The only exception is the King Creole, run by an old adversary, Charlie LeGrand (Paul Stewart), which happens to be the one Danny has turned into a success. In a rather sweet subplot, a May-September romance develops between LeGrand and Danny's sister Mimi (Jan Shepard). Danny has met and been attracted to a nice girl, Nellie (a very appealing performance by Dolores Hart), but he's also warily attracted to Maxie's girlfriend, Ronnie (a riveting Carolyn Jones).

Danny is fought over by two club owners

The story explodes into violence as Maxie, after setting him up, pressures Danny into leaving LeGrand's club and moving to his. This brings him into close contact with the alluring but troubled Ronnie, who has developed quite a crush on him. This doesn't exactly please Maxie, but he controls his anger since Danny is packing the club every night. Things eventually come to a head, however, when Maxie maliciously causes a rift between Danny and his father. Danny, whose resentment is always simmering beneath the surface, storms up to Maxie's office and attacks him; Maxie is bigger and meaner, but Danny is much younger and faster, and very angry, and by the time Ronnie manages to part them Maxie is down. But after Danny leaves, Maxie calls his minions, including sneering teen thug Shark (Vic Morrow), who attacks Danny with a knife. This leads to one of the iconic movie fights of the fifties, the staging re-enacted by teenage boys everywhere for decades.

A final fight with Vic Morrow
Danny is injured in the fight, but Shark is killed. Danny staggers home, but his father has locked the door. He collapses on the street, bleeding. Ronnie arrives with her car, drags him into the front seat, and they go on the run. Danny and Ronnie have a few days of peace together at a beachside cottage she owns. But Maxie's thugs track them down, and as they try to flee Ronnie is shot. All that saves Danny is the kid he helped, Dummy, who tackles the gunman just as the police arrive.

Ronnie is dead. LeGrand and Mr. Fisher have provided enough evidence to have Maxie arrested. Danny, reconciled with his father, rerturns to the King Creole club to continue his career.

The tight script, expert direction of emotional, action, and musical scenes by Curtiz, and the really fine performances all around, would make this a good movie whoever starred in it. But in this one, early in his career, Elvis Presley was quite capable of holding his own with talented and experienced actors like Matthau, Jones, and Jagger.

Elvis backed by the Jordanaires on "King Creole"

Making a good movie takes a lot of thought, work, and preparation. Later in his career, Elvis -- or at least his manager, Tom Parker -- wasn't willing to make that commitment, and many of his films were, frankly, terrible. But it wasn't because of lack of talent or ability. He was a real movie star -- for a while.