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The Gay Falcon

Gasser

The Gay Falcon (1941)

Despite the middle-of-the-road rating I feel compelled to give The Gay Falcon, the movie about retired freelance sleuth Gay Lawrence is far from dull. George Sanders brings a fun liveliness to the lead character who is comically rude to the women in his life and amusingly insulting to those around him.

The Gay Falcon was the first of four movies about the crime solver known as The Falcon that would star George Sanders (The later nine movies would start Tom Conway, Sanders’ brother, as Tom Lawrence, The Falcon’s brother.) But the origin of The Falcon character is suspiciously linked to Leslie Charteris’ The Saint. This movie was made after Sanders made five films as Simon Templar aka The Saint, who was a rogue crime solver who although on the side of the law, worked independently of the police. The story about Gay Lawrence not only featured Sanders and costar Wendy Barrie again but also the same writing crew at RKO that was responsible to the Sanders Saint movies. Charteris sued RKO claiming it had stolen his character. The final disposition in the suit has not be discovered.

But onto the story. Sanders’ Gay Lawrence is attempting to hold down a legitimate office job to appease his fiancée Elinor (Anne Hunter). When the duo go to a party, however, Lawrence is drawn into a case involving jewelry thefts all occurring during parties hosted by Maxine Wood (Gladys Cooper). While dancing with everyone but his fiancée, Lawrence is slipped a large diamond ring from Mrs. Gardiner (Lucile Gleason) and told to protect it from criminals who wish to nab it. Shortly thereafter, Mrs. Gardiner is killed.

Helping Lawrence on the case is Maxine’s secretary Helen (Barrie), who is more interested in nabbing the Falcon as a romantic partner than in accomplishing anything. Her continual presence at Lawrence’s apartment and her answering of the phone there, drives Elinor into a constant furry, and she chums up with a Manuel Retana (Turhan Bey) to make her beau jealous.

Meanwhile, The Falcon’s sidekick Goldie Locke, played by Allen Jenkins, is arrested for the first murder for being the only witness on the scene, and for the later killing of one of the suspects. Lawrence also gets himself on bad terms with the police and eliminates his snazzy manner of dress in exchange for a slobbish disguise. The Falcon will solve the case and make his choice of a female partner.

The Gay Falcon brings all the usual elements we expect in a detective (or in this case non-detective) story, but adds a great degree of humor. Although probably not as witty as The Saint, The Falcon sure knows how to toy with women. Barrie is extremely amusing as the sort-of-dumb and definitely worthless partner ever at Lawrence’s heels. Much of the dialogue is outright laughable, but in a good way. Compared to Sanders’ The Saint movies, I would say The Gay Falcon is far less serious, with Sanders having more fun in the role. I will still always prefer his Simon Templar pictures as being of just overall higher quality in terms of plot and performance.

Sources: Ben Mankiewicz, TCM.com

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Weekend’s Best Bet Continued…

In running through TCM’s lineup for this weekend, I came across far too many good flicks to list in my regular viewing recommendations in the left column. Not only are there a number of gems showing this weekend, but I have already written about a few them. So click on the links below to learn more about the movies and consider checking them out yourself this weekend. P.S. All times are Eastern Standard Time and on the U.S. programming schedule.

The Public Enemy
6 am Saturday on TCM
James Cagney, Jean Harlow

The Saint Strikes Back
noon Saturday on TCM
George Sanders, Wendy Barrie

Dinner at Eight 
8 pm Saturday on TCM
John Barrymore, Marie Dressler

The Thin Man
10 pm Saturday on TCM
William Powell, Myrna Loy

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner 
2 am Sunday on TCM
Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy

 San Francisco
8 am Sunday on TCM
Clark Gable, Jeanette MacDonald

A Day at the Races
10 am Sunday on TCM
The Marx Brothers

Witness for the Prosecution
noon Sunday on TCM
Marlene Dietrich, Tyrone Power

Murder on the Orient Express

Ring a Ding Ding

Murder on the Orient Express (1974)

I love Agatha Christie mysteries. They are so convoluted and complex and rely on that oft-used plot ending during which the detective explains to us what happened –because there was no way we pieced it together ourselves. Murder on the Orient Express was finally made into a movie in 1974 with Christie being unwilling to allow a film version while the Production Code threatened to wipe out many essential plot elements.

Murder on the Orient Express enthralls us with a large, all-star cast, which is an approach repeated with Christie’s Death on the Nile that starred Bette Davis and Mia Farrow, to name a few. An almost unrecognizable Albert Finney plays our Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot who happens to board a train, the Orient Express, where a murder will take place with far too many suspects to deduce a simple solution.

Our victim is one Mr. Ratchett (Richard Widmark) who approaches Detective Poirot seeking protection hours before his death. The man, who is mysterious about his line of work, has been receiving threatening notes. He is killed in his bed in the cabin beside Poirot’s; although, no struggle is heard.

What Poirot soon deduces is that Ratchett was the man behind the kidnapping and killing of the daughter of a famous aviatrix. The abduction did not just result in one fatality, however. A maid was falsely accused of involvement in the crime and commited suicide. The distressed mother died in childbirth, during which the infant also passed. The father killed himself from grief.

On board the train car where the murder occurred are many seemingly unconnected passengers including: a meek missionary Greta (Ingrid Bergman); the obnoxiously talkative Mrs. Hubbard (Lauren Bacall); an elderly Russian Princess Draganoff (Wendy Hiller) and her companion Hildegarde (Rachel Roberts); Ratchett’s secretary McQueen (Anthony Perkins); Countess Andrenyi (Jaqueline Bisset) and her husband (Michael York); Colonel Arbuthnott (Sean Connery); the mysteriously sad Mary Debenham (Vanessa Redgrave); a Chicago car salesman Fiscarelli (Denis Quilley); conductor Pierre Michel (Jean-Pierre Cassel); Ratchett’s bodyguard Hardman (Colin Blakely); and Ratchett’s valet Beddoes (John Gielgud).

All passengers are ultimately discovered to have motive for the crime as their individual identities are revealed. In the end, however, Poirot will tell authorities that the mafia was involved in killing Ratchett and that the culprit departed the train during its lengthy stop awaiting the clearance of a snow drift, but that’s no spoiler.

The story of Murder on the Orient Express does a great job of supplying us with tidbits of information and a variety of clues, but not all of the evidence is actually related to the crime, making it impossible for us to form our own conclusion. The advantage movies have over books –and one not always employed in these types of mysteries– is that the flick can show us via flashback what actually happened rather than relying on us to make sense of a rambling written or spoken explanation. Murder on the Orient Express takes advantage of this to great dramatic end.

The flick is not without its laughs as Finney brings a good deal of humor to the silly detective who sleeps with hair nets on his oily black locks and stylized mustache. Bacall also stands out as the loud and flamboyant actress, and Bergman is surprising in such a plain, timid part. Hiller as the Russian Princess is frankly quite terrifying with her powdery white skin and her rolling, biting accent. Her manly maid played by Roberts is also intimidating.

Ladies They Talk About

Dullsville

Ladies They Talk About (1933)

Prison sure was different in the 1930s. Sure, men still had cells with bars on them and bunk beds within, and apparently marched everywhere they went, but for women, the penitentiary was like a mini community but one from which you could not leave. In Ladies They Talk About we get a surprising look at what imprisonment meant for female offenders. Barbara Stanwyck spends most of the story behind bars after assisting a bank robbery for a load of gangsters.

Stanwyck’s Nan Taylor could have fought to maintain her innocence in the crime, but a man from her home town –now a big-time political preacher in the big city– falls for her. Their kiss inspires Nan to tell David Slade (Preston Foster) the truth about the robbery, which he finds staggeringly upsetting. She therefore admits her crime to the district attorney and away for two to five years she goes.

In the clink she gives up her fur and fine dress for a plain frock, although not a uniform. The women in here have made themselves a comfortable lifestyle, complete with beauty shop services, rocking chairs and a socialite with a lap dog. The cells are private apartments with windowless doors, which the girls have adorned with photos of their favorite celebrities. Nan keeps a picture of Slade to remind her of the hatred she feels for him. Her newly found arch enemy inside, however, keeps several photos of the man out of adoration.

Nan refuses to see Slade, who writes to her regularly and stops by every visiting day. Around the same time she learns that the man is actually trying to help her get an early release, she has also been contacted by her former partner in crime, Lefty (Harold Huber). Two other members of the gang have been pinched and reside in the men’s prison on the other side of Nan’s wall. They have a plan to dig their way out, with her help.

Upon seeing Slade for the first time, Nan allows for the reestablishment of their romance and slips a letter to Lefty into the man’s pocket. Slade later finds the note and drops it into the mail. But Lefty is in local lock-up and his forwarded letter gets opened by the warden, who then traces it back to Nan. She assumes Slade ratted on her.

Ladies They Talk About is interesting to the degree it shows some version of life inside a women’s prison. On the other hand, however, it tries to drive some sort of romantic yarn through the plot even though Stanwyck’s character has shown only loathing or tolerance for the man who unreasonably adores her. Stanwyck’s performance is lack-luster. At the start she shows shades of bad acting in instances when Nan is herself putting on a show for the authorities. This is nevertheless frustrating to watch.

None of the other characters offer anything special. Foster is milquetoast and oft-criminal Huber is in so few scenes as to make his presence nearly unnoticeable. Dorothy Burgess as Susie –the Slade-lover, Nan-hater– attracts some degree of interest. She looks like a less interesting Tallulah Bankhead and is as obnoxious as she is meant to be.

There are plenty of other flicks in which to see Stanwyck playing the hard-boiled blonde or brunette and/or the sex pot, but Ladies They Talk About should not be sought out for that reason. Sit down with Baby Face instead.

  • Ladies They Talk About is set for 2:15 p.m. ET Dec. 20 on TCM.

Touch of Evil

Wowza!

Touch of Evil (1958)

It had been probably seven years since I had seen Touch of Evil, so when the opportunity presented itself to see it on the big screen, I said, sure, why not? I probably should have been shouting from the rafters because in the interim I had completely forgotten just how much of a masterpiece the picture is.

The Orson Welles flick is most commonly celebrated for its 3 minute and 30 second opening sequence. This long take weaves the camera through the streets of the Mexico border area that is our setting after we witness a bomb placed in the trunk of a car. The camera eventually unites us with stars Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh, the newlyweds who are crossing into America. They pass over just as the ill-fated car does and are within view of the fiery blaze that occupies the screen after the movie’s first cut.

Heston’s Mike Vargas is a Mexico native and detective in that country, but the crime is sort of out of his jurisdiction because it happened on American soil. The American authorities, headed up by the grotesque Hank Quinlan (Welles), agree to work with Vargas because the bomb was planted south of the border. In the midst of this, however, Vargas has to find a place to keep the new wife, who is an American. Susan is too tough to spend the duration of the story in a hotel room, however, and the story follows her increasingly dangerous circumstances while Vargas is busy investigating.

The challenge Vargas faces is that Quinlan is far from an honorable cop in the typical sense of the word. He is well revered for bringing so many men to justice, but as the Mexican will eventually learn, he often goes outside the law to ensure convictions. Quinlan drills into a young Mexican man as his prime suspect for the explosion that murdered a construction magnate and his girlfriend. The man is dating the victim’s daughter, who would inherit her father’s fortune. Upon interrogation at the couple’s apartment, however, Vargas discovers Quinlan has planted the damning evidence but none of the American cops are willing to doubt their leader.

As Vargas digs into Quinlan’s corrupt past, Susan has already been twice threatened by a group of young Mexican greasers. The woman is being targeted to get to Vargas, although their motivation is not totally clear. Susan refuses to be frightened until she finds herself alone in a hotel complex. She is in desperate need of sleep, but when a group of party animals move in next door, she has more than exhaustion to worry about. What will transpire over the following day is more horrible than she could ever have predicted.

Touch of Evil was filmed almost entirely at night. The picture is incredibly dark and Welles uses the black and white film to his advantage in exuding a dark mood on all who watch it. Low-angle shots heighten the drama as we watch the shadowy faces of the unfriendly Vargas and Quinlan. Welles also uses sound to convey the solitude of night as our characters’ footsteps echo though streets and shadows run along walls. We have a sense that danger lurks around every corner, and are constantly on edge. Enemies attack from multiple angles as the American authorities offer no refuge from the Mexican criminals.

Welles might give his best career performance in Touch of Evil. Quinlan is such a despicable and powerful character and Welles is capable of intimidating the audience right out of their seats. I normally do not care much for Heston, but he is great as Vargas. His tan look, with dark hair and mustache, creates a convincing Mexican although he refrains from any accent. I think this helps to level the playing field between Vargas and the American detectives; although, we are still fully aware he is an outcast among this group. Leigh, meanwhile, has plenty of sex appeal and the sass necessary to make her arrogant enough to believe she is safe from harm. She reportedly broke her arm before filming and the cast was hidden during filming. During the hotel scenes, the cast was sawn off and her arm reset after filming.

Marlene Dietrich plays a small part as a gypsy to whom Quinlan goes for his traditional binge drinking. She delivers lines in her usual German drawl through a cloud of smoke she emits via the stogie on which she sucks. High-angle shots flatter her angular face while dark hair and lipstick transform her nationality. Welles alumnus Joseph Cotton appears in a tiny role, as apparently Keenan Wynn does, however, I did not spot him (so if anyone can tell me where he is, I’ll revisit the flick and find him!).

Touch of Evil is textbook filmmaking. It is artistic to the extreme while offering a riveting, convoluted story and powerful acting that has one biting his nails for half the feature. Seeing it on the big screen was a real treat, but it is a must-see movie no matter the venue.

Source: TCM.com

Dick Tracy (1945)

Gasser

Dick Tracy (1945)

Besides horror-story monsters, there are no characters that stand the test of time like those comic book –or in this case comic strip– characters. Comic book movies have been running amok for the last decade as Hollywood revisits and reimagines the heroes with origins dating back generations. Dick Tracy, who got his start in the first comic strip to show the gritty, criminal side of the Depression, covered all forms of media overtime and most recently was brought to life by Warren Beatty in the 1990 movie.

I grew up watching that colorful and thrilling drama that also features Madonna and Al Pacino. I consumed it over and over again, always with my father, and my sister and I even received Dick and Breathless dolls for Xmas one year. I still today could sit down with that flick anytime.

But before fan Beatty reintroduced the character to the big screen, Dick Tracy had appeared first in movie theater serials, a string of movies and in a television series. Morgan Conway was chosen for the first feature-length movie to play the man drawn with a square jaw in the comic strip.

In Dick Tracy, Conway faces villains newly created for the movie. In this instance, Split Face (Mike Mazurki) is the primary aggressor who has been threatening and murdering victims of varying socio-economic status. Although the school teacher, mayor and middle-class man seem to have nothing in common, there is one connecting thread that Tracy must uncover.

True to Tracy’s habit of neglecting his girlfriend, Tess Truhart (Anne Jeffreys) is repeatedly stood up by the sleuth in favor of following a lead. Tess finds herself in danger and nearly killed by Splitface in this yarn, but the potential loss of his loved one doesn’t make Tracy any better at keeping their dates.

Also on hand and introduced without any explanation is Jr. (Mickey Kuhn), an orphan who was adopted by the unmarried Tracy and is equally looked after by Tess. I could spot the inspiration for a scene in the 1990 Dick Tracy in this version, as Jr. clings to the back of the villain’s car to help the police track down the killer.

Dick Tracy was as enjoyable as one would expect in bringing to a full-length film a character well loved by the public. The studio went to lengths to pick an actor who could look as Tracy did in the Chester Gould comic strip and didn’t do a bad job. Conway is a decent actor and the rest of the cast supports him splendidly.

Penthouse

Gasser

Penthouse (1933)

Myrna Loy‘s Hollywood title of “the perfect wife” reflects the reality that her most memorable roles were those that domesticated her to family life. The Thin Man movies, The Best Years of Our Lives and Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House are such examples. But she was not always so type cast. She played the exotic early in her career and brought a certain sex appeal that was restrained in her later parts. On the fence between those two worlds is Penthouse. It was directed by W.S. Van Dyke a year before he made The Thin Man and the important decision to cast Loy as Nora Charles, a part that to a large degree makes those movies what they are.

In Penthouse, Loy plays a dame who hangs around with seedy underworld types and who ends up taking up residence at the home of a lawyer. Try as she might, Loy’s charming personality surmounts the suggestive dialogue that would paint her as a floozy. But her wit and comedic delivery of lines here would convince Van Dyke of his find and propel her to stardom the next year.

Warner Baxter plays Jackson Durant, a well-to-do attorney who tarnishes his career by successfully defending mobster Tony Gazotti (Nat Pendleton) from a murder conviction. He also loses the affection of his girl, Sue (Martha Sleeper),  because of the new company he keeps. Sue quickly finds a new love, however, in the arms of pal Tom (Phillips Holmes) and the two get engaged.

Tom must break off his affair with low-life Mimi (Mae Clark) who in turn looks to rekindle a romance with gangster Jim Crelliman (C. Henry Gordon). To satisfy the racketeer, however, Mimi must publicly break things off with Tom. At a nightclub, Mimi takes Tom onto a roof balcony for that conversation but Crelliman and others in the club are surprised by a gunshot. Mimi is dead and Tom is holding the gun.

Jackson comes soon to conclude his friend Tom is innocent when he receives a phone call advising him to stay away from the case. He therefore gets involved. As part of his investigation, Gazotti hooks him up with Loy’s Gertie Waxted. Meeting at a club, Gertie confesses she’d be more comfortable at home cooking “a pot of eggs” but also does not wish to return to her apartment where a photo of friend Mimi will depress her. The solution is Jackson’s flat.

Nothing untoward occurs between the duo and Gertie even says she will get rusty at defending her honor after a month of residence at the home. Jackson wants to keep her safe at his place while he continues the investigation. He’s hoping to get unexpected information from her just by talking about Mimi. In doing so, she reveals several clues, such as that her apartment overlooks the murder scene and that building is owned by Crelliman. The racketeer also knows the pawn broker who IDed Tom as having bought the gun in question.

When Jackson leaves the apartment to investigate Gertie’s home, the woman is unable to stay put as she is fearing for the man’s safety. Later seeing Gertie with Crelliman’s “finger man”, Jackson suspects she has betrayed him. With the help of mobster Gazotti, Jackson unravels the mystery and saves his new girl.

Loy, although one must be patient for her first appearance, steals a decent portion of attention given her relatively small role in Penthouse. The gal is smart, kind and tough and exudes too much class for us to actually believe she was of Mimi’s sort. Gertie is the sort of role you would expect Jean Harlow to play, but by using Loy, we get a much more likeable character and one that seems to be classy enough for the once-revered attorney.

Pendleton is very enjoyable and memorable as Gazotti. The character actor often played gangster sidekicks or detective partners, but this is the first I have seen him in a role of power. He is no less congenial nor any smarter than his other parts, but he makes the criminal who is backing our protagonist easy to like.

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