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.

The Best Years of Our Lives

Wowza!

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

The Best Years of Our Lives is one of the best movies I have ever seen. I thought it might be prudent to get that out front because this post will be nothing but praise for the masterpiece. But I’m not alone in my assertion as the flick won eight of the nine Oscars for which it was nominated.

The picture, which came out a year after World War II ended, was about just that: the end. It follows three soldiers who return to the same hometown and try to re-enter their past lives. The Best Actor award went to Dana Andrews who plays pilot Fred Derry and steals away the majority of our attention during the movie. The Best Supporting Actor Academy Award went to first-time actor and real-life soldier Harold Russell, who lost his hands and forearms in a training accident and had them replaced by hooks.

Joining both Fred and Homer (Russell) on a flight home to Boone City is Army Sgt. Al Stephenson, played by Fredric March. The three bond over their short trip home and share the same reluctance to leave their taxicab when it pulls up to each house. Al comes home to a surprised and overwhelmed wife in Myrna Loy, whose emotions overwhelm us as much as she in reuniting with her husband. The couple have a teenage son (Michael Hall)and a slightly older daughter who has been working as a nurse.

Homer, meanwhile, comes home to loving parents and a young sister. His mother cannot help but cry at the sight of his disability, frustrating the soldier who has become accustomed to it. He was set to marry the girl next door, Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell), before he left for the war. Although Wilma shows no hesitation around her beau, he is too self conscious about the hooks to believe in their future and so avoids contact with her.

Fred, lastly, stops at his parents run-down home to say hello and to reunite with the wife he married 80-some days before deployment. She no longer lives with the folks, however, and has taken a job at a night club and an apartment in town as well.

Unable to handle the home surroundings that are no longer familiar to him, Al takes his wife and daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright) out on the town, ending their late night at Butch’s Place. Homer too finds his way there after spilling a glass of lemonade he was unable to manage with his prosthetics. Fred, unsuccessful in locating his wife at any of the clubs, joins the gang. A very drunk Fred is forward but polite with Peggy and ultimately spends the night in her bed –although she is on the couch.

The next day, Fred finally reunites with his wife Marie (Virginia Mayo), who is thrilled to see him. The couple soon spend down the $1,000 in cash the man has, and the revelation that nightly outings are nixed from their lives frustrates Marie. The two are growing distant as Fred and Peggy are falling in love, a love of which Al does not approve.

Director William Wellman sets up from Peggy and Fred’s first encounter their destiny together. Seating them beside one another in a crowded booth at Butch’s, we naturally pair them. We also see a great degree of interaction between the two before ever meeting Marie, so we make up our minds early about the winning woman.

The two able-bodied men are finding employment to be a challenge but in disparate ways. Al has not only been offered back his job at the bank, but has been promoted to a post where he will consider GI loans. His idea of a safe bet is different from that of the execs, however, stirring some tension. Fred, meanwhile, returns to a job at what used to be a drug store and works beneath the man he used to oversee. He had sworn never to return to such a low position, but has no skills outside of flying a plane. Poverty challenges his home life.

Both men illustrate for the audience the frustration of returning to the mundane experiences of regular employment. Work is not chief among soldiers’ thoughts when imagining their return home, but it nevertheless remains a requirement to maintain a livelihood. Fred, who was a captain in the Air Force and a pro flyer, is disheartened to be placed in such a menial position where he has no control.

My favorite scene in The Best Years of Our Lives is the last. Fred and Peggy are among the guests in a crowded house awaiting the bride’s appearance. Seeing that Al has arrived, Fred goes on the hunt for Peggy, whom he has weeks before romantially rejected as a way to keep her father happy. When he spots the woman, he stops, standing arms at his side facing her across the room, unmoving. The camera’s high-angle shot does not seem to be focusing on anything in particular, but our eyes are drawn to him. Peggy, who has been in conversation, seems to sense his gaze and turns towards him and approaches. They exchange pleasantries but make not gestures of love. Later, as the bride and groom read their vows, Fred is standing as best man but is looking across the room to Peggy, who seems to glow in her light-colored dress, who is also watching him. The cinematography is subtle as the bride and groom take up half the screen and their speaking can distract us from the shot’s true meaning. The recitation of the vows and pronouncement of man and wife seems as much meant for the bride and groom as for Peggy and Fred. When the ceremony is over, Fred walks directly to Peggy and kisses her as though they are alone in the room.

The Best Years of Our Lives is a masterpiece in its gentle conveyance of the harsh realities of returning soldiers who are damaged goods to certain degrees in physical and mental ways. The prolonged friendship among the men is also a testament to how they could feel more at home with each other than with their own families because of the semi-shared experiences they had overseas. Both the men and their loved ones suffer under the circumstances with Peggy being one neutral and healing figure for Fred. This movie is apt to make you cry, sigh and smile and is one of the most touching pictures I’ve ever seen.

  • The Best Years of Our Lives is set for 8 p.m. ET Aug. 2 and 2:15 a.m. ET Oct. 10 on TCM.

Laura

Wowza!

Laura (1944)

     For me, Laura is the quintessential film noir. In reality, however, it is quite different from the standard flick of that genre. Whereas most noirs dealt with seedy underworld types and a blonde vixen,Laura’s setting is high society and focuses on a pretty brunette out to destroy no one.

     The title character, played by Gene Tierney, is absent for the majority of the flick, shown primarily in flashbacks as the movie paints a picture of her rise to professional wealth and of those around her who are now suspects in her murder. Dana Andrews plays Detective McPherson who seeks to unravel who unloaded a barrel of buckshot in the woman’s face in her own doorway one night.

     He starts his sleuthing with snide newspaper columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), who accepts McPherson’s visit while he is at his typewriter … in the bath. Waldo is an absolutely unkind man who defends against an accusation of callousness with the response: “I would be sincerely sorry to see my neighbor’s children devoured by wolves.” He, who was responsible for launching Laura’s career and courted her platonically, glimpses no sign of guilt. Fascinated with the psyche of a murderer, however, he insists on joining the cool McPherson in his interviews.

     Next up are Laura’s aunt Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson) and Laura’s fiance Shelby, played by a young and handsome Vincent Price. Shelby has been distraught, unable to sleep (is that a sign of grief or guilt, Waldo inquires), but his alibi of attending the symphony is shoddy as he inaccurately reports the program, defending himself by saying he fell asleep. Ann, meanwhile, is looking shady because she has been withdrawing large sums of money that appear to be resurfacing in Shelby’s coffers, and we learn the two were having an affair.

     It is impossible to go further into the plot without giving away a fantastic twist that transpires about two-thirds in. The change throws all theories out the window as McPherson considers a different suspect and a different body. Director Otto Preminger gives us a masterpiece in Laura. It seems impossible to determine a true motive for the murder and we and McPherson have a difficult time knowing who to trust.

      The dialogue is intelligent, witty and sharp, especially that coming from the literary Waldo. Webb fantastically plays the acerbic writer whose insults flow so gracefully off his tongue. The story, however, is not just a mystery; it also has shades of romance. As McPherson learns all about Laura and we view her through flash backs, the man gradually falls in love with her ghost and her portrait that hangs above the woman’s mantle. Andrews gives a wonderfully controlled performance. He never raises his voice and his demeanor of near disinterest has the suspects overly willing to offer up information or point out where they have been dishonest and why. He lets Waldo rile up accusations and spark arguments while he bows his head to play with a handheld puzzle game.

     Tierney, meanwhile, paints Laura as a woman we cannot help but admire and ourselves fall in love with –reserved, gentle, elegant, forthright– while Andrews portrays his detective as a perfect mate. Anderson gives her typically perfect performance, and Price is fascinating to see in his charming youth before becoming a master of horror flicks.

     Laura won an Oscar for Best Cinematography, and the black and white picture really is a work of art, full of creative shadowing that instills the sexy, mysterious mood. This movie is yet another example of how Otto Preminger never disappoints.Laura is not as long as his other lengthy but worthwhile mysteries, but it packs the same wallop. I cannot recommend it enough.

Daisy Kenyon

Gasser

Daisy Kenyon (1947)

     I have said (to myself) for a while now that Otto Preminger films never disappoint. I’m not implying that Daisy Kenyon is a let down, but it is not the sort of film for which I have come to know Preminger. It is a romance, quite unlike the mysteries, often murder mysteries, of his other work. This movie does, however,  have the darker feel and shadowy cinematography/mise-en-scene that one can identify with the director.

     Joan Crawford‘s Daisy is the girlfriend of Dana Andrew‘s Dan, who is a married attorney with two daughters. At the film’s start, Dan visits Daisy, smooches her a bit and is on his way, running into soldier Peter (Henry Fonda) on his way out, knowing full well the man is Daisy’s date. Neither male party seems off put with Daisy’s dating habits, and Peter nearly instantly falls in love with her. Dan’s wife is aware of her husband’s affair, but deals with it, to an extent taking her anger out on one of the daughters.

     Daisy eventually agrees to marry Peter, a widower, but after losing an important case, Dan forces himself on Daisy, angering her significantly. Later that night he tries to apologize via telephone, but when his wife snoops on the call a significant row begins and drives the wife to seek a divorce. If Dan will agree to relinquish custody of the girls, the wife will settle out of court. If not, a scandalous trial will ensue and Daisy will be drug into it. Dan gets both Daisy and Peter to agree to the trial route, but when Daisy is on the stand and the questioning gets too personal, Dan calls it quits.

     Divorced, Dan is interested in being with Daisy and assumes Peter will bow out, which he nearly does. When Dan approaches him with divorce papers, Peter says he wants Daisy to sign first. At this point Daisy is unsure what she wants, and it is anyone’s guess with whom she will end up.

     The trouble with Daisy Kenyon is that despite being a romance, the viewer does not get any warm, fuzzy feelings from watching it. Whereas Fonda plays Peter as a man who accepts his subordination to his wife’s other love interest, Andrews is quite cold in his affections for the title character. Although the viewer might spend the last half hour trying to predict with whom the protagonist will choose, one cannot actually find merit in either choice. I’m not sure if this is a deliberate approach, but it is one that left me caring little for the final outcome. Crawford, however, does give us the only emotion in the film, and one can understand her feelings when she seems to convey that she wants neither of them.

  • Daisy Kenyon is set for 8 p.m. ET April 22 on TCM.

While the City Sleeps

Dullsville

While the City Sleeps (1956)

     I suppose I recorded While the City Sleeps because it has Ida Lupino in it. I discovered that little dynamo in They Drive by Night with Humphrey Bogart, but I nearly did not recognize her in this film. What I remembered and so identified with in my first Lupino viewing was a scrawny, dark-featured woman with a certain uniqueness to her speech,  but what I found in While the City Sleeps was a curvy vixen with a lightness to her look and what seemed to be a completely different voice and persona, but maybe that’s acting.
     I must say although Lupino gave a great performance in While the City Sleeps I preferred the look I had come to know opposite Bogart and in some crummy musical TCM must have mislabeled as three-star quality.

Lupino in "They Drive by Night"

     Putting those feelings aside, I was incorrectly delighted with While the City Sleeps when the opening credits revealed not only was Dana Andrews also in the cast, but so was George Sanders and Vincent Price. Jackpot! Battle of the Talls, I thought (Price takes the prize, by the way).

Ida Lupino in "While the City Sleeps"

     Unfortunately, this film, although having the backing of  fantastic director Fritz Lang, was a bit sloppy in its plot. Not only does the narrative cover the search for the “Lipstick Killer” by one reporter, but also details a battle between three newspaper bigwigs as they seek to impress the new boss (Price) who recently inherited the firm and is dangling an “executive director” position before their noses. Add into that some complex romances among married but mostly unmarried individuals, and one is not sure to what exactly he is supposed to pay attention.

     Being a reporter, While the City Sleeps affords me the opportunity to whine about how important, impressive, and all around cool reporters used to be. Today one is lucky to find a job in print journalism let alone see a movie with a plot strictly centered on a gent in the field. Journalists played central roles in so many films from the bygone era to the point I will not bother to list those that come to mind, for there are too many. In While the City Sleeps, Andrews’ character is such a well-reputed reporter that he is granted access to witness interrogation, confessions etc. In this flick it is Andrews’ reporter who chases down the murderer and captures him. Fat chance of that happening today (or probably in real life at any point). I can only imagine what it must be like to work in a well reputed field. A gal can dream.

     TCM gave this movie a 4.5 star rating leaving me to wonder what I am missing. Perhaps it is the performances that make this movie great, but the plot offers too great a stumbling block for me. Divide this into two or three films and I could stomach it, but as is, my mind is wandering…

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