A Guide to the Interesting and Unusual on TCM
By Ed Garea
As we reach further into September we can see that the choice of movies offered is definitely improving. This week holds the promise of some gems that we’ve seen (numerous times) and loved, and some good ones we haven’t seen. Plus a whole morning of ‘30s prison flicks. Can’t beat that.
We begin with another “Sunday With Hitch,” and the offerings this week range from the improbably dull Under Capricorn at 10:00 am (Good, because on Sunday, while I’m up, I’m still getting my bearings, so I’ll pass on this one.) to the better Stage Fright at noon, with Jane Wyman putting in a stellar performance, and Marlene Dietrich just being Dietrich, which is always fun viewing. Then follow in order I Confess, The Wrong Man, Saboteur, Foreign Correspondent (one of my favorite Hitchcocks), North By Northwest, and finally, at 12:45 am, his silent, The Ring, from 1927, about two boxers fighting over the affections of one woman.
Now, if you’re still up at that late hour, here’s a film I definitely recommend for viewing for recording and later viewing:
2:15 am Rocco and His Brothers (Le Studio Canal Plus, 2001) – Director: Luchino Visconti. Cast: Alain Delon, Renato Salvatori, Annie Girardot, Katina Paxinou, Roger Hanin, Max Cartier, Rocco Vidolazzi, Spiro Focas, & Paolo Stoppa. B&W, 176 minutes.
If there’s one thing Italian filmmakers have proved, it’s that one doesn’t need a whole lot of room to make an epic. All that’s really needed is a good story and a good director to tell that story.
This is the story of a widow, Rosaria Parondi (Paxinou) and her five sons – Rocco (Delon), Simone (Salvatori), Ciro (Cartier), Luca (Vidolazzi), and Vincenzo (Focas) – who have migrated from rural southern Italy to Milan in search of a better life. As they adjust to their new environment, they are inevitably corrupted by urban life.
Most of the drama is centered around the saintly Rocco and his tense relationship with his brutish brother, Simone. Simone is a promising young boxer who begins what becomes a rocky relationship with prostitute Nadia (Giradot). When she leaves him, meets and falls in love with Rocco, Simone is driven to seek revenge, a revenge that eventually ends when he stabs Nadia to death. Meanwhile, Rocco has been cleaning up after his brother, making good on his debts to the point of getting into the ring himself. Yes, it may be almost three hours long, but under the guidance of Visconti the minutes fly by as we become totally involved in the family’s story. It’s definitely one to catch.
Trivia: The film was a co-production of Titanus in Italy and Les Films Marceau in France, but in America Astor Pictures, a Poverty Row studio known mainly for distributing B and Z movies, handled the distribution. Founded by Robert M. Savini in 1930, Astor made its first big score when it acquired the library of the defunct Grand National Pictures in the late ‘30s. Astor also acquired the rights to United Artists and RKO pictures for later re-release. When Monogram was releasing the Bowery Boys films, Astor bought the rights to their earlier East Side Kids films from Sam Katzman for re-release. In addition, the company also handled the distributions for such Grade-Z classics as Frankenstein’s Daughter, Cat-Women of the Moon in 1953 and its 1959 remake, Missile to the Moon. Astor could be quite a find for a foreign studio such as Hammer looking to exhibit its early films (mostly noir) in the U.S. After Savini’s death in 1956, George M. Foley, Jr. and Franklin Bruder bought the company and took it in a different direction by making deals with European film studios for American distribution. Their biggest success was with Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita in 1960, a huge box office hit. Other notable films included Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, Francois Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player (both 1960), and Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad (1961). Despite the success with such films, Astor declared bankruptcy in 1963 and faded from the scene.
10:00 am Rififi (Rialto, 1955) – Director: Jules Dassin. Cast: Jean Servais, Carl Mohner, Robert Manuel, Jules Dassin (as Perlo Vita), Marie Sabouret, & Janine Darcey. B&W, 122 minutes.
When MGM released The Asphalt Jungle in 1950, it was assumed that John Huston had made the ultimate heist noir. But a mere five years later, director Dassin not only tops Huston, but does so on a fraction of Huston’s budget. Both took their plot from pulp writers. In Huston’s case, it was the novel of the same name by W.R. Burnett, who also wrote the novels on which High Sierra, Little Caesar, and Beast of the City, among others, were based. Dassin adapted a pulp novel by prolific author Auguste Le Breton, Du rififi chez les hommes. (Loose translation: “Trouble Among the Boys.”) While Huston had a relatively easy time adapting Burnett’s novel, Dassin had a hell of a time with Le Breton. To begin, the novel is so loaded with French slang that Dassin, who recently fled to France to escape the Hollywood Blacklist, had an assistant read it to him. Secondly, the novel’s plot is rather wide-ranging, containing an instance of necrophilia. Dassin couldn’t film that, so he cut out a part of the novel dealing with a jewel heist and went from there. Le Breton, who was quite the character, paid a visit to Dassin and asked him where his book was. Dassin explained the situation, but Le Breton ignored his explanation and repeated the question, this time placing an automatic .45 on the table. At that point Dassin thought the entire conversation so absurd that he broke out laughing. Fortunately, so did Le Breton and Dassin claimed they got along swimmingly thereafter.
Because of the low budget, Dassin couldn’t afford a top-flight star, such as Jean Gabin. Instead he had to settle on Belgian actor Servais, whose career had hit the skids due to a drinking problem. Another story goes that the actor Dassin originally negotiated to play the pivotal role of Cesar suddenly balked at the last minute, holding out for more money, so Dassin decided to play the role of Cesar himself, using the name “Perlo Vita” so the movie could play in America. Servais, by the way, turned out to be the perfect choice; his portrayal of Tony is absolutely riveting.
Somehow, though, I wonder. Dassin has told many stories about Rififi over the years, such as the one where he was so broke when the film premiered at Cannes (he won the prize for best director) that he had to ask one of the producers for some money with which to bet at the casino. Supposedly, in a game of roulette, he chose the number 18, which was the day he began filming the movie. Naturally, the number hit and he won a small fortune, with which he was able to support his family.
And that’s why I tend to regard the stories about Rififi with a grain of salt. They simply don’t pass the smell test. It’s my belief that the real reason stars such as Gabin balked was not the budget, but rather the suspicion of working with a director foreign to France and the French film tradition. If the film was as low budget as Dassin’s stories claimed, then why, to maintain a dank, cloudy look, did he refuse to film on sunny days, thereby stretching the filming schedule and costing money? He could simply have used an optical printer or simply shot indoor scenes on sunny days. But Dassin was charming to everyone who interviewed him . . . and he was a good storyteller.
Trivia: The death of Cesar was not in the original story, but was added by Dassin as a homage to those that were blacklisted and refused to dime out others.
8:45 am Gabriel Over the White House (MGM, 1933) – Director: Gregory LaCava. Cast: Walter Huston, Karen Morley, Franchot Tone, Arthur Byron, C. Henry Gordon, David Landau, & Samuel S. Hinds. B&W, 86 minutes.
This is a strange movie – not only for its time, but also for any time. Get a load of this plot: Party hack and high liver Judson C. Hammond (Huston) is elected president. His neglect of the job in favor of good times and patronage had led the country down the economic drain. Unemployment is high and the criminals are having a party at the expense of law-abiding citizens. While out partying, Hammond is involved in a serious car accident. While in the hospital he’s visited by the Archangel Gabriel, who forces Hammond to accept the reality that the country is in serious trouble thanks to his poor leadership. Hammond recovers, and now seeing the light, fires his crooked cabinet, storms into Congress and convinces the lawmakers to give him absolute power in order to stamp out organized crime and fix the economy. For an encore he calls the nations of the world together and brokers a lasting peace by bullying the others to accept his terms for disarmament. His work now done, Hammond dies, leading us in the audience to believe that he had really died in the car accident, but was given a reprieve by Gabriel in order to set things straight.
Produced by Walter Wanger and William Randolph Hearst for Hearst’s Cosmopolitan Pictures, Gabriel Over the White House is practically a love letter to fascism, espousing the view that only a strong hand could lead the country out of its current morass. Staunch Republican Louis Mayer didn’t even want to release the film, but was told by Hearst that if MGM didn’t want to take advantage of the sweet distribution deal, RKO would certainly jump at the prospect. So, Mayer delayed releasing the film until Hoover was out of office. It didn’t matter, for Gabriel was among the top grossing films that year. The oddest thing about the film was that it could be made today with nary a change in plotting.
An entire day of prison flicks! It’s a psychotronic feast for the cinephile.
The day begins at 6:30 am with Road Gang (WB, 1936). Donald Woods stars as a reporter whose nose for ferreting out corruption lands him on the chain gang in an unnamed Southern state. At 7:45 am comes Numbered Men (WB, 1930), a programmer from Mervyn Leroy about an unjustly imprisoned man (Raymond Hackett) who tries to prove his innocence while working on the road gang. The 9:00 am showing is Condemned Women (RKO, 1938) with Sally Eilers as an embittered prisoner who’s becoming romantically linked to saintly prison shrink Louis Hayward. Fans of Caged will want to see this one, as it has all the prototypes of the women’s prison flick: the nasty, ruthless matron, the inmate who takes the rap for her boyfriend, the scheming cellmate, and the prison break. It even has Lee Patrick as the scheming cellmate. Patrick was to play another connected con in Caged.
At 10:30 am, Hell’s Highway (RKO, 1933), one of the more durable chain gang movies released in the wake of the success of I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang. It’s relentless and raw, but ultimately saddled with a disappointing ending. 11:45 am sees the screening of one of the best prison genre movies made: The Big House (MGM, 1930), with Wallace Beery and Chester Morris as the hardened cons and Robert Montgomery as the frightened young newbie. It set the template for later films of the genre and contains one of Beery’s best performances.
The Big House is followed at 1:15 pm by the Jimmy Cagney-George Raft potboiler Each Dawn I Die (WB, 1939). Cagney is a crime-and-corruption-busting reporter who’s framed for murder and sent up the river, where he meets good-hearted con Raft. At 3:00 pm – Ladies They Talk About (WB, 1933), a groundbreaking prison film in that it features women prisoners. Barbara Stanwyck gives her typical hard-boiled performance, but watch for Lillian Roth in a fine performance as a fellow inmate, and Ruth Donnelly as a matron.
The day closes with two real classics of the genre: Brute Force (Universal, 1947) at 4:15 pm, and I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (WB, 1932) at 6:00 pm. The former cemented the stardom of Burt Lancaster while the latter made a star out of its lead, Paul Muni.
It’s a great day for fans of prison movies, and even for those who aren’t, there’s still something watchable that day.