Harper

Gasser

Harper (1966)

Harper (1966)

Following up on the success of his other “H” movies, Paul Newman made Harper in 1966, having requested the name be changed from “The Moving Target” to draw on the box office luck he realized with Hud and The Hustler. The story harkens back to the private eye tales of the 40s, and producers scored Lauren Bacall in a supporting role to cinch that motif.

Newman is Lew Harper, a private eye living out of his office because his wife (Janet Leigh) is in the process of divorcing him. His friend and former DA Albert Graves (Arthur Hill) recommends him for a job with Bacall’s Mrs. Sampson, who wants him to investigate the disappearance of her philandering husband. The wealthy woman has an attractive step daughter –whom Graves wants to marry– also very keen on locating her father. This Miranda (Pamela Tiffin) joins Harper and the Sampson pilot/driver Alan Taggert (Robert Wagner) in scoping out the subject’s last known whereabouts –an airport and hotel where Mr. Sampson keeps a “bungalow.”

Harper meets washed up actress and sometimes companion to Mr. Sampson, Fay Estabrook, played by Shelley Winters. He gets her drunk and searches her apartment only to be interrupted at gunpoint by Estabrook’s husband. Harper plays Texan and manages to leave without the man being wise to his real reason for being there.

Harper manages to pick up one clue or one sliver of information at each stop in his investigation that leads him to another place and another clue. The plot becomes increasingly convoluted as Harper concludes Mr. Sampson has been kidnapped and ransom sought. Julie Harris plays nightclub singer and heroin addict Betty Fraley, who has a link to another player that we won’t see coming. In fact, when all is said and done, you’ll be wishing William Powell would materialize to give us the end-of-movie run down of who did what and why.

The story at times felt like a scavenger hunt and one that could be easily recreated as a party game. Although Harper is adept at blending into his surroundings, he has perhaps too easy of a time getting information from people and it always manages to be helpful information that never leads to a dead end. How many times have we seen the matchbook in a dead guy’s pocket lead us to the nightclub where all the unsavory sorts mingle? Is that always going to be a foolproof clue into cinematic eternity? Harper is very much a tribute to the old crime movies of decades earlier, but it could perhaps have tried to mix things up.

Where the movie does distinguish itself from its predecessors is in the violence and sex appeal the 1960s could afford. Newman’s character finds himself regularly brutalized while Tiffin shakes her hips and Winters requests Harper not try anything tonight. It’s certainly a grittier drama made all the more modern by being shot in color rather than in the stark black and white we have become accustomed to in this genre.

Harper certainly isn’t Newman’s finest work, and I often get annoyed by mysteries that have too much going on to actually follow the plot. Harper is not a bad flick, though. It’s just not one I’ll likely watch again.

The Saint’s Double Trouble

Gasser

The Saint's Double Trouble (1940)

The Saint’s Double Trouble (1940)

RKO had three films based on Leslie Charteris’ The Saint books by 1940 and had found a great leading man for the role of Simon Templar in George Sanders. Charteris had come to Hollywood to help make the movies about the rogue detective, former crook and although he would contribute to the story of The Saint’s Double Trouble it was the first movie to not be based on one of the novels.

Perhaps for that reason, the story seems a bit out of joint with the other eight movies RKO ultimately made about Simon Templar. To its credit, however, the story starts out seeming straight forward, becomes confusing, and then reveals its plot ploy: a Saint look-alike.

Templar is in Philadelphia to pick up an item smuggled to recipient and long-time friend Professor Bitts (Thomas Ross). A pouch of jewels were hidden in a mummy delivered to the scientist that the reformed thief pockets easily enough. While at his friend’s home, he encounters the host’s lovely daughter Anne (Helene Whitney), who returns to Simon a ring he once gave her with his initials: S.T.

Also coincidentally in Philadelphia at the same time is New York’s Inspector Fernak, played by Jonathan Hale who repeatedly reprised this role in the RKO pictures. So when Professor Bitts ends up dead outside his home with the Saint’s ring on his finger and a note with Templar’s caricature on it, Fernack’s resistance to intervene is easily whittled away.

Meanwhile, Simon enters the basement room of a bar that is the secret hangout of a gang of jewel thieves/smugglers. The Saint informs his men he will go meet their guest –The Partner, played by Bela Lugosi– at the airport. Not too much later, the Saint returns and inquires of his mugs about the Partner’s arrival, causing great confusion for the men. It is at this point that we start to realize there is more than one Saint in this picture.

The remainder of the plot is an action-packed back and forth battle of wits and fists between Simon and his double, Boss Duke Bates. Anne naturally comes within harm’s way and is saved by our hero, who is captured and escapes from the gang multiple times.

Putting two George Sanderses on the screen at the same time was not accomplished with the same ease technology allows today. Only a few scenes feature the doubles together and are confined to the basement office of Boss Duke Bates. While Bates sits in the background at his desk, Templar is able to stand in front of it with the other two hoodlums. The latter three actors are performing in front of a screen on which the Boss’s image has been back projected. The trick is an obvious one as the background looks fainter and grainier than the real-life actors in front of it. In other instances, a body double is used to duplicate Sanders’ from behind.

The best part of the The Saint’s Double Trouble is the story’s main element, which frankly I did not see coming (despite having watched this movie years ago). Once it hits the viewer that there is more than one Sanders character in the scenario, it forces him to look back at the preceding scenes and try to determine whether the hero or the villain was in play. Perhaps the story is a silly one. The Boss does not realize the Saint is in town even though he is pinning a murder on the man, so it falls to coincidence that Simon is in town at the same time. But there is no coincidence in the stories of the Saint, so we must conclude that Simon has been aware of the smuggling and been following the case all along; however, this story point is not made evident.

Although The Saint’s Double Trouble has no source material in Charteris’ novels, it does tip its hat to one of the books via a newspaper headline reading: The Saint Wanted for Murder. It might not be the best in the Saint cannon of movies, but it is still full of fun with Sanders’ ever astute delivery of the witty dialogue for which Simon Templar is so famous.

Feature: Modern Noir–Brick

Wowza!

Brick (2005)

Brick (2005)

Being a fan of classic films makes it difficult not to want to talk about contemporary movies that take more than a casual influence from screen gems of the past. Brick is one of those examples: a present-day murder mystery whose characters are nearly all high school students. The approach is not as juvenile as it might sound, however, as the relative age of our characters would be forgotten without the occasional reference to parents and class –neither of which are depicted.

The story is fast-moving, with an opening on our protagonist, Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), stooped across a massive storm drain from the face-down body of a blonde girl. Flash back to two days prior and our story really starts. This girl, Emily (Emilie de Ravin), slips a note in Brendan’s locker asking him to rendezvous at an intersection at 12:30 p.m. There he goes and there he picks up the ringing pay phone. On the line a distraught Emily tries small talk but, pressed for the meaning of the call, begins to rattle on about a “bad brick”, “poor Frisco”, “Tugg” and “the Pin”. Her dialogue suggests to Brendan that Emily is nearby and the girl hurriedly ends the call when a black Mustang flies down the street. A cigarette is flicked from the car with a distinguishing arrow mark on the paper. This will be a clue not realized until much later.

From here Brendan flies into detective mode and immediately consults with The Brain (Matt O’Leary) looking for the skinny on the words in that conversation he did not understand. He also asks for info about Emily and who she’s been “eating lunch with” –a repeated reference to the characters’ social groups. Emily and Brendan once dated but she broke it off three months ago when she tried to take up with a group known as “the upper crust”. She also hung around at one point with the drama “vamp” who is also a Brendan ex and the modern day stand in for a prostitute/stripper/slut type. That is where Brendan takes his questions next.

Brendan manages a final meeting with Emily before her demise. He tracks her down after questioning –and pounding on– hash-head Dode (Noah Segan) who insists the girl is with him now. He follows the druggie and sees him hand Emily a slip of paper. Brendan will get his hands on this note after meeting with the distraught Emily who conveys she is in trouble but insists Brendan must let her go.

Through his interrogations, Brendan gets wind of the involvement of drugs and encounters the tempting Laura (Nora Zehetner). This member of the upper crust comes on to the sleuth, but he cannot trust her. After a series of fights with a football playing, drug buying member of the upper crust and a white trash thug named Tugg (Noah Fleiss), Brendan is finally delivered to The Pin (Lukas Haas), who is the 26-year-old head of the drug dealings in the area. Brendan manages to weasel his way out of a knee-breaking and into the The Pin’s circle in almost a consigliere-type role. Emily was involved directly with The Pin’s outfit and was connected with a brick of heroine that went missing. In the end, however, she was not killed because of the brick.

The plot of Brick is clearly convoluted as many detective stories of classic film could be. However, I spent my entire time watching this movie last night wracking my brain trying to decide what type of mystery the story emulates. In many ways, Brendan embodies the noir private detective who is approached by a distraught blonde who ends up dead. But unlike those stories, our protagonist has a history with the victim. This regular-guy-turned-sleuth approach is more in line with Hitchcockian plots that excluded police from the crime-solving. But Brendan seems to have a certain kind of case-solving skill that the everyman might lack. His story also seems similar to the reporter-as-detective movies that always result in the newspaperman getting in over his head in a case while on the hunt for a story. Brendan’s infiltration of the criminal gang –in this case with many mob-like aspects– brings yet another element of crime-solving to the fore. Lastly, his verbal wrap up of the story’s elements at the flick’s close harkens back to Nick Charles’ speciality.

I labored over trying to put Brick in one of the standard mystery categories, but perhaps it is just what it seems, an amalgamation of them all. Regardless, the story is mesmerizing. It is not without its comedic moments, however, particularly where The Pin is concerned. This mob leader has a club foot and walks with a cane while wearing a cape. He rides in the back of a furnished van complete with a 70s style table lamp. Best yet, however, is that he lives with his mother. The Pin, Tugg and Brendan are treated to cereal and orange juice at the kitchen table while the young adult’s business deals take place in a half-finished basement.

In addition to a wonderful story and fantastic acting, the movie is also very artistic in its cinematography. The occasional jump cut and plenty of below-waist shots create a visual masterpiece. The dialogue is also rife with creativity. The DVD even came with a booklet defining some of the slang used by the teens. When Brendan provides a particularly intelligent response to the school vice principal, he is complimented, leading to a discussion of a particular English teacher. The language can be difficult to follow at times, and at others might seem a bit pretentious, but it is pulled off swimmingly.

Brick was the first full-length movie by director and writer Rian Johnson, who just this summer put out is latest masterpiece, Looper. The genius has only these two and The Brothers Bloom to his feature film credit, with a couple television episodes in the meantime. His movies are released with quite a repose in between, but if that is what it takes to come up with such masterful movies, I’ll be content to wait.

Secret Bride

Dullsville

The Secret Bride (1934)

The Secret Bride (1934)

Barbara Stanwyck is a good example of an actor who is remembered by history as being a real standout performer with many phenomenal movies and roles to her name while still having a list of disappointments on her resume. The same can be said of many stars that eventually rise to a position where they can be choosy with their parts, but everyone has to make a living to start with.

Like Ladies They Talk About and The Bitter Tea of General Yen, The Secret Bride is an easy film on Stanwyck’s list to ignore. At just over an hour in runtime, the movie is horribly rushed, eliminating any chance for a natural ebb and flow of action.

Stanwyck is Ruth Vincent, daughter of the state’s governor. She marries in a town hall the state’s Attorney General Robert Sheldon (Warren William), but before the couple can announce to her father the exciting news, Sheldon is informed that the governor is implicated in a bribery scheme.

Governor Vincent (Arthur Byron) had pardoned John Holdstock, and the latter’s secretary, Willis Martin (Grant Mitchell), is caught by Robert’s investigator depositing $10,000 into Vincent’s personal account. A short while later Holdstock is found to have killed himself. Both Robert and Ruth believe in the governor’s innocence, but they want to prove it before a legislative investigatory committee can impeach him. In order to avoid any appearance of impropriety, the couple commit to keeping their marriage secret.

Keeping the nuptials under wraps does not become a problem until Ruth witnesses the shooting of Robert’s investigator Bredeen (Douglas Dumbrille) from Robert’s apartment window. She did not see the shooter but she knows the direction of the shot clears Bredeen’s girlfriend and Robert’s secretary Hazel (Glenda Farrell) of the crime. Ruth insists on staying out of the investigation because it would raise questions as to why she was in Robert’s apartment late at night. At last, however, she must come forward and admit their marriage in court, potentially ruining her husband’s career.

Stanwyck give the performance we would expect of her but does not blow anyone away. William is equally satisfactory in his part, but the story is difficult to appreciate. It is impossible to unweave the crime oneself, and as the action rushes along, we conclude with one character confessing every detail of the convoluted crime. Ruth and Robert seem to be genuinely in love, an accomplishment for the actors, but that has nearly nothing to do with the story, which is essentially a crime mystery. Perhaps the plot would have been more compelling it had analysed the effect on the newlyweds of the investigation. The emotional trauma and rift it could cause would be more dramatic than a complex crime story.

  • The Secret Bride is set for 2 p.m. ET Dec. 13 on TCM.

The Saint in New York

Gasser

The Saint in New York (1938)

By 1938, the Saint had been alive in the novels of Leslie Charteris for 10 years, and although Simon Templar’s adventures largely take place overseas, Hollywood clearly could not resist the opportunity to make the first film adaptation set in its own country. The Saint in New York, RKO’s first of nine flicks based on the Saint, largely did justice to the book of the same title, in some ways seeming to draw the action directly off the pages of the novel.

Simon Templar, played by Louis Hayward, has arrived in New York after being approached abroad by William Valcross (Frederick Burton) who asks him to help clean up the corrupt city, led by cop-killing gangsters. It is that murderer who becomes Simon’s first victim. Jake Erboll intimidates witnesses into getting his case dismissed but does not get far before the Saint, dressed as a nun concerned for the man’s gunshot wound, takes him out. The proximity to the victim his get-up allows, gives Simon the opportunity to place his signature stick-figure drawing in Erboll’s hand.

Erboll was the first on a list of individuals Valcross has asked him to eliminate as a means to clean up the city. Simon will next visit Erboll’s attorney (in the book it was the judge on the case) Vincent Nather (Charles Halton) where, in a scene straight out of the novel, he will employ his ever-so-cool demeanor and abscond with $20,000, which comes with the name Papinoff (Ben Welden). The Saint also listens in on a phone call for Nather from a woman named Fay whose voice instantly enraptures the sleuth. She informs Nather the “Big Fellow” says to stay home tonight. Simon adds this mysterious man to his list.

Before he departs the lawyer’s home, the Saint and Nather are joined by Inspector Fernak, played expertly by Jonathan Hale. In relaying the telephone message, Simon causes the cop to become quite enraged at the attorney as he deduces Nather is under the thumb of the top hoodlum. The Saint joins Fernak in his car for their first tete-a-tete on his mission and gathers information about his next destination –as well as overhear a radio call about the kidnapping of the daughter of a wealthy New Yorker.

A guarded nightclub is where Simon seeks Papinoff, who will apprehend the Saint and deliver him to the next man up the ladder, Morrie Yule, who is holed up in a New Jersey house where the kidnapped girl is being kept. Showing his deft physical skills, the Saint kills one of the three men in the room with the knife they failed to discover was strapped to his forearm –a weapon the Saint always carries. In the now-darkened room, he is handed a gun by a woman he assumes to be Fay (Kay Sutton) and by the time he leaves the premises has killed another man and rescued the girl.

Although quite climactic, the scene is far from the end of the story. Simon will go on to meet the remaining men on his list and at one point be delivered to his execution only to be saved by a woman. The identity of the Big Fellow becomes the leading question of the story and his identity is definitely a surprise.

I appreciate that The Saint in New York sticks pretty closely with the book, making only minor alterations to the names of some characters and combining two gangsters into one. The book is so wonderfully suspenseful, however, that it is hard to appreciate the film version when you know more details about each scene than the screen tells you. It is nevertheless a great story, nicely complicated and entertaining.

Hayward does a good job portraying the Saint. He has the coolness of personality required, but probably no actor could portray just as physically skilled a man as Simon is meant to be. I will likely forever prefer George Sanders as the Saint, and had a hard time fully accepting Hayward. Part of this hurdle is because when reading the books I envision Simon as a tanner, blue-eyed Sanders. The character is meant to be particularly tall –as Sanders is– and is British (an accent Hayward lacked) and as witty as only Sanders can convey. Charteris would later say that he thought Sanders and Hayward were “hopelessly miscast” as his hero.

Lastly, Hale as Fernak is a great bit of casting. He is utterly calm and trusting in the Saint, whom he knows by reputation but has just met. The character is the same in the book, one of the cops Simon partners with and always manages to evade when he might actually be tapped for a crime. Hale went on to play Fernak in the George Sanders’ Saint movies that take place in New York –always the on-the-sidelines ally of Simon Templar.

Source: LeslieCharteris.com

Shadow of the Thin Man

Ring a Ding Ding

Shadow of the Thin Man (1941)

The sleuthing team of Nick and Nora Charles were bound to find themselves in the midst of a gambling racket at some point in their on-screen careers. As movie history teaches us, gambling and bookies only lead to murder and further crimes, and in Shadow of the Thin Man our favorite detective comes out of retirement yet again to solve the convoluted case.

It is a wonder the writers at MGM could come up with a new and enthralling murder case for each of the six Thin Man movies, yet they do it again here using the same formula as the others. The key to the stories is the overabundance of characters, which in some cases are difficult to keep track of, and a mystery that gets further compounded with subsequent murders and crimes to the point that no viewer can deduce who the one culprit is. But that is why we have Nick Charles.

A portion of the comedic enjoyment of Shadow of the Thin Man is that although Nick (William Powell) is again insisting on his retirement from the sleuthing business, he happens to keep finding himself at the scenes of the crimes. At the start, the Charles’ are at the racetrack where a jockey is found killed –a jockey who was asked to throw the race. The press jump to the conclusion that Nick is on the case because of his proximity, but he denies any involvement. Later, while at a boxing match, Nick is again just a floor below another shooting murder of an unscrupulous reporter and his assault on an honest journalist.

The Charles’ are friends with the honest newspaperman and Nick agrees to get involved in part to prove this Paul (Barry Nelson) is innocent of the shooting of reporter Whitey (Alan Baxter). As the case progresses, complete with untrustworthy women and hoodlums, Nick discovers the first murder was not what it seemed, but he won’t let the public know that. His shrewd technique leads to the familiar ending with the entire cast of characters in one room, waiting for the guilty man to reveal himself and to try to kill Nick.

I have noticed as progressing through the Thin Man movies that Nick has become and increasingly bad alcoholic. At the start of Shadow of the Thin Man, Nick is out with Jr. (Dickie Hall) in the park across the street –reading him the racing form. Looking to get her husband home, Nora (Myrna Loy) starts shaking a cocktail mixer. This causes the distant Nick to remark: “Nicky, something tells me that something important is happening somewhere and I think we should be there.” The maid also notes that Nicky is becoming more like his father everyday: “This morning he was playing with a corkscrew.”

Nick’s drunkenness is always inserted for comedic relief and usually peters out as the story goes on and the stakes become more serious. Nevertheless, I don’t think I am stretching the truth in saying our favorite crime solver was often the worse for wear and not in an admirable sense.

  • Shadow of the Thin Man is set for 1:30 p.m. ET Dec. 18 on TCM.

Assignment–Paris

Ring a Ding Ding

Assignment–Paris (1952)

If we are to believe old movies, the occupation of a reporter was essentially synonymous with that of a detective. It’s the whole investigative journalist angle that often landed newspapermen in a heap of trouble trying to snare a story a.k.a. find the culprit. In Assignment–Paris, however, reporters go one step farther and become, in a word, spies.

George Sanders leads the pack of reporters in a story that if I hadn’t told you their occupation, you would think the characters are government agents. The paper in question is the New York Herald-Tribune’s Paris edition. Sanders as the editor in chief Nick Strang is finding out his new import is a bit of a wildcard but a great reporter. This Jimmy Race (Dana Andrews) tries to secure an interview with the Hungarian Ambassador at the same time the lovely Jeanne Moray (Marta Toren) is doing the same. Race is unaware she works for the same new outfit.

Race opts to romantically pursue Jeanne, who has declined to answer a proposal from Nick, but that is not what this story is about. Jeanne is a Hungarian who has just returned from Budapest on Nick’s request, but she leaves before she could get her hands on a photograph that is the only proof of a meeting between Hungarian Prime Minister Andreas Ordy and Yugoslavia’s President Tito. Jeanne is being followed by Hungarian agents, however, who suspect she has such evidence.

The plot also surrounds the spy trial of an American named Anderson, who is convicted and recorded admitting his crime in Hungary. Race is sent to Budapest to investigate further, and through clandestine means, ascertains that Anderson is dead. He cannot freely relay information back to Nick and instead telephones a coded story with the news. Race also manages to get his hands on the damning photograph. He is arrested by Hungarian authorities and tormented in days-long interviews. His words are recorded and edited to make it sound like he admits to being a spy.

The Hungarian authorities are also after a man in hiding in Paris, Gabor Chechi (Sandro Giglio), an escaped Hungarian national. In order to save Race, Gabor Chechi and the newspaper must make sacrifices.

Assignment–Paris is quite the exciting plot. It can be on the convoluted side, but keeping track of all the mentioned and actual characters is not as difficult as it might sound. As in most of these reporter-as-detective stories, both Jeanne and Race act like their duties come as no surprise and don’t differ from their usual activities. Being something close to a spy comes easily to Race as he finds a way to relay the photograph back to Paris.

The story is a bit much if we are to believe we are watching newspapermen. Sanders behaves as a top government official would, ordering his agents here and there to do more than objectively discover the truth, but to root it out to the ruin of a nation’s leaders. I’m not sure we ever see an actual newspaper with Race or Jeanne’s stories in it, further diluting their roles as reporters. I am not complaining, though. The high-stakes story is enthralling and goes miles beyond what reporters do today, not that I am advocating for their integral involvement in international politics.

The performances are excellent. Andrews is probably less sexy than some of this other roles, but he is still a great performer. Sanders is his usual, professional type character, but Toren brings the spice. This Ingrid Bergman-like exotic is gorgeous and captivating and does a great job as both a strong professional and a desirable woman. TCM has her listed as only appearing in a dozen movies, this being her third to last, which is too bad; she was quite a treat to watch.

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