Sunday, April 7, 2013

Cinéma Inhabituel for April 8-14

A Guide to the Interesting and Unusual on TCM

By Ed Garea 

April 8

6:00 am Lawyer Man (WB, 1933) Director: William Dieterle. Cast: William Powell, Joan Blondell, David Landau, Helen Vinson, Claire Dodd, Alan Dinehart, and Kenneth Thompson. B&W, 72 min.

Who would have ever thought that Powell would be a romantic leading man in the ‘30s? He didn’t make his feature film debut until the age of 30 in 1922 and had a face that seemingly doomed him to the world of character or supporting actors. As a matter of fact, Powell wasn’t even the first choice for this film. It was Edward G. Robinson, but Eddie G. was unavailable when the film was cast and so it went to Powell.

Blondell, on the other hand, was a treasure Warners simply had no clue as how best to use. A gifted comedienne, she was frequently cast as either the best friend, or moll of the leading man or leading lady. Aside from Barbara Stanwyck, there was no one better at playing the Working Class Heroine than Blondell. And she shines forth in this film playing a secretary, though she and Powell could be said to be a mismatched couple.

The plot of the film is simple: Powell is Anton “Tony” Adam, a rather successful lawyer working on New York’s Lower East Side. Blondell is Olga, his extremely competent albeit lovesick secretary. When he is framed by showgirl Virginia St. Johns (Dodd), her crooked doctor boyfriend, Dr. Gresham (Thompson), and political boss John Gilmurry (Landau) for unethical conduct, he decides that if he’s going to be seen as a shyster, he might as well act like one and accepts every shady case that comes his way, charging huge fees for his appearances. Another court showdown with Gilmurry leads to an out-of-court settlement with Tony being appointed an ADA, from which position he exacts revenge on Gresham. Offered a judgeship by the organization, he turns it down to pursue his original career of honest law work on the Lower East Side, with the faithful Olga in tow.

Trivia: Max Trell wrote the novel on which Lawyer Man is based. Trell was better known as a children’s book author and as a contributor to such popular comic strips as “Prince Valiant.”
9:30 pm Knock on Any Door (Columbia, 1949) Director: Nicholas Ray. Cast: Humphrey Bogart, John Derek, George Macready, Allene Roberts, Susan Perry, and Barry Kelley. B&W, 100 min.

Bogie is crusading attorney Andrew Morton, who is defending juvenile delinquent Nick Romano (Derek), accused of murdering a policemen during a robbery, with the old “it’s society that’s to blame, for there is no such thing as a bad boy” canard. It’s sort of tough defending a young man whose personal motto is “live fast, die young, and have a good looking corpse.” But in Bogie’s final summation to the jury he tells them, “Until we do away with the type of neighborhood that produced this boy, ten will spring up to take his place, a hundred, a thousand. Until we wipe out the slums and rebuild them, knock on any door and you may find Nick Romano.”  Did we really believe that?

Trivia: This was the first effort from Bogart’s Santana Productions, founded along with business manager A. Morgan Maree and producer Robert Lord. It was named after Bogart’s beloved boat.

April 9

2:30 am Three Strangers (WB, 1946) Director: Jean Negulasco. Cast: Sydney Greenstreet, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Peter Lorre, Joan Loring, and Robert Shayne. B&W, 96 min.

This is a great, underrated movie about three down-on-their-luck strangers – Crystal (Fitzgerald), a jilted wife; Arbutny (Greenstreet), a disreputable lawyer; and Johnny (Lorre), a petty thief. They meet on a London street on the Chinese New Year in 1938 and strike up a friendship, chipping in to buy a sweepstakes ticket with the hope it will change their luck. It does, but their greed and paranoia does them in and leads to tragedy.

Trivia: John Huston wrote the story in 1936 while in England, and, with Howard Koch, completed the screenplay a short time after. When Warners decided to go ahead with the project in 1946, Huston was unable to fulfill the directorial duties due to the fact that he was still in the U.S. Army Signal corps at the time. Huston also conceived the project with Bogart, Greenstreet and Mary Astor as the leads.
April 10

2:45 pm The Set-Up (RKO, 1949) Director: Robert Wise. Cast: Robert Ryan, Audrey Totter, George Tobias, Alan Baxter, Edwin Max, and Wallace Ford. B&W, 72 min.

Robert Ryan has never been better than in this film, where he plays down-an-out club fighter Bill “Stoker” Thompson, who insists that he is only one or two fights away from reclaiming his place in the big time. Unbeknownst to him, his manager, Tiny (Tobias), has sold him out for $50 to local gangster Little Boy (Baxter), who wants Stoker to take a dive to up-and-coming Tiger Nelson. Stoker fights as if the bout is on the level, and when it looks as though he might win, Tiny tells him about the bribe and to take the dive. Stoker refuses and knocks out Nelson to win, but that victory will be short-lived when the angry Little Boy and his thugs get a hold of Stoker. The screenplay is by former sportswriter Art Cohn, who supplied most of the film’s amazing realism. Wise directs it like a documentary, even further adding to the realism. It’s a must see, even if you’re not a boxing fan.

Trivia: Cohn based his screenplay, incredibly, on a narrative poem published in 1928 by Joseph Moncure March, who went to Hollywood as a screenwriter on the strength of it. The lead character in March’s poem was Black, but Wise said there were no African-American leading men in the Hollywood of 1948 and so cast Ryan, a boxing champion during his student days at Dartmouth, instead.

5:45 pm The Woman on Pier 13 (RKO, 1949) Director: Robert Stevenson. Cast: Robert Ryan, Laraine Day, John Agar, Thomas Gomez, Janice Carter William Talman, and Richard Rober. B&W, 73 min.

There is a special fun in watching “Red Scare” films, if for no other reason than because they are so preposterous. And this is one of the best (or worst, depending on your point of view) of the lot. Robert Ryan is shipping executive Brad Collins, who, long ago, was once a member of the Communist Party. And as we lovers of this genre know – once you’re in, you’re never out. The Commies are little better than mobsters here – they blackmail, torture, and kill anyone in their way. Brad has recently married Nan (Day) who knows nothing of his former life. But one day Brad is visited by old flame Christine (Carter), who tries to blackmail him back into the Party. When that doesn’t work she turns her attentions to Nan’s naïve brother-in-law Don Lowry (Agar) and begins to influence his politics. Because Christine was unsuccessful, the Party head himself, Vanning (Gomez) steps in, using intimidation tactics and death threats to force Ryan to rejoin the Party and go along with his nefarious scheme to initiate a crippling strike on the San Francisco docks. Brad eventually foils the Commies and saves the day for America, but at a great cost.

Trivia: The original title of the film was I Married a Communist. The film marks the screen debut for William Talman, who plays a sleazy carnival barker and hit man for the Commies. 

April 11

8:00 am Love Me Tender (20th Century Fox, 1956) Director: Robert D. Webb. Cast: Richard Egan, Debra Paget, Elvis Presley, William Campbell, and Neville Brand. B&W, 89 min.

This so-so Western will always hold a special place among music fans as the debut film of Elvis Presley. Producer Hal Wallis signed Elvis to a film contract, and while developing what he considered the right material for Presley, he loaned him to 20th Century Fox for this Western about four brothers, three of whom went off to fight in the Civil War for the Confederacy while the youngest, Vince (Presley), stayed behind to care for their mother and work the family farm. This was the only time, by the way, that Elvis was ever cast in a supporting role. From here on in, he was the star of the picture.

Trivia: Elvis developed a crush on co-star Debra Paget during filming, but his love was unrequited, as her mother had other plans for her. Elvis would make a habit of falling for someone in his films, usually his leading lady. The title was changed from the original The Reno Brothers to promote the title song sung by Elvis.

April 12

11:45 pm The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T (Columbia, 1953) Director: Roy Rowland. Cast: Peter Lind Hayes, Mary Healy, Hans Conried, Tommy Rettig, and John Heasley. Color, 90 min.

One of the best – and most forgotten – Hollywood fantasies, with a script by Dr. Seuss (Theodore Geisel) with characters and sets as only he could imagine them. Coming hot on the heels of Geisel’s 1951 Oscar winning cartoon, Gerald McBoing-Boing, this is a surrealistic young boy’s nightmare about tyrannical piano teacher Dr. Terwilliker (Conried), who enslaves 500 boys to play together on his giant piano. Although today it’s rightly regarded as a cult classic, it was a critical and financial flop when originally released.

Trivia: During filming one of the piano students ate a hot dog that had passed its prime, resulting in his becoming sick to his stomach on the set. This in turn caused a chain reaction that resulted in over 1,000 boys hurling their lunches onto the ivory keys.

April 13

2:15 am Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky (Golden Harvest, 1991) Director: Ngai Choi Lam. Cast: Fan Siu-Wong, Fan Mei-Sheng, Ho Ka-Kui, Yukari Oshima, and Tetsuro Tanba. Color, 91 min.

Throw logic to the wind and just sit back and revel in this psychotronic prison movie set in the near future where, in a privatized prison, the inmates are used as slave labor by the evil warden to work his opium garden and heroin refining factory. They are overseen by a quartet of thugs led by a vicious and effeminate kung fu master played by Japanese actress Yukari Oshima (!).

Into this scenario enters Riki (Fan Siu-Wong), a decent citizen whose virginal girlfriend has just died at the hands of heroin dealers. Thus he’s out on a quest for all the revenge he can get and will punish every worker in the heroin machine. Absurdity is truly the name of the game in this joint Hong Kong/Japanese production. Upon entering the prison, Riki sets off the metal detector due to the five bullets he still has in his leg. The Assistant Warden not only has a prosthetic metal claw for a hand, but also removes his glass eye from time to time to enjoy the breath mints he has hidden in it. And the warden, if for no other reason than he must naturally have the most powerful kung fu, has the ability to morph into a nine-foot tall demonic hulk.

The action scenes are even more unbelievable. After having powdered glass thrown in his eyes by one of the warden’s enforcers, Riki breaks open a sewer main with his hands to clean his eyes with the spraying sewage. He later repairs his injured arm by ripping all the tendons out with his teeth and tying them back together by hand. He hits one of his opponents with so much force that the man’s eye pops out and is immediately eaten by crows. But that’s not all. His opponent fakes his own ritualistic death, but instead he wraps his intestines around Riki’s neck as the Assistant Warden tells Riki he has a lot of guts. And as if that wasn’t enough, the screen later goes to an x-ray look to show Riki’s fist smashing through a man’s skull and into his brain.

Even in a genre where the unusual is all in a day’s work, this film manages to raise the bar.

Trivia: So much fake blood was used in the “meat grinder” finale (don’t ask), that Siu-Wong was unable to wash it off his skin for several days.

April 14
2:00 am Kurotokage (Black Lizard) (Daiei, 1962) Director: Umetsugu Inoue. Cast: Machiko Kyo, Minoru Oki, Junko Kano, Hiroshi Kawaguchi, and Masao Mishima. Color, 101 min.

This is a mystery based on a novel by Japan’s master of suspense, Rampo Edogawa, and adapted for the stage by the famous Yukio Mishima. It concerns an androgynous master jewel thief. This is not to be confused with a later version shot by Kinji Fukusaku for Shochika in 1969.

In fact, the real mystery may be just which version TCM deigns to show, for in their description the year of production given is 1962, but the cast is from 1969.

I readily admit that I haven’t seen the 1969 version; it’s the ’62 version I’m familiar with, and it’s the ’62 version which so impressed me when I saw it, with its breathtaking cinematography and haunting musical score. It was also shot on sets, which gave it a most surrealistic feeling, especially when the stage lighting is added into the mix.

I do hope it is this version that is shown, though I won’t complain too loudly if the ’69 version is screened instead. 

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