Chi Shyster Brew with an Ambulance Chaser

An unlikely movie hero, unscrupulous Illinois mouthpiece John J. Malone, the demented brainchild of mystery author Craig Rice, remarkably made it to two big-screen comedic adventures, RKO’s Having Wonderful Crime (1945) and MGM’s Mrs. O’Malley and Mr. Malone (1950), now available in a delightful double-feature DVD-R (logically entitled the JOHN J. MALONE MYSTERY DOUBLE FEATURE) from the Warner Archive Collection.

Malone, the human definition of Irish blarney, was always one step away from disbarment, due to his less-than-kosher methods of practicing his art. His addiction to lowlife dregs, gangsters, hookers, drunks, and other rogue’s-gallery denizens endeared him to the underworld and the Fifth Estate, but caused countless untold headaches for the Chicago justice department and local police constabulary.

Fast-talking Malone was sorta like Nick Charles sans Nora and scruples. Where he rivaled the Thin Man sleuth was in charm and investigative skills.

True, the Saint, the Falcon, Boston Blackie and others often relied upon their underbelly connections to do the right thing. In Malone’s case, the right thing is whatever and/or whoever fills his coffers with the most coin. While his competitors often weren’t proud of the depths they had to slink to in order to come out on top, Malone simply doesn’t care. In fact, when not cheating his ravishing secretary out of her pay, he’s boasting of his infamous tactics, defiantly proud of his notoriety – not the least being the fact that he continually gets away with unbridled chicanery. Kinda like Congress.

Ironically, Malone would have been a perfect pre-Code Hollywood character (imagine an entire series of pics starring Cagney’s Jimmy the Gent), yet while the watered-down 1940s and 1950s versions remain ingratiating on one level, they nevertheless were still distasteful enough to keep the majority of movie-goers away in droves.

Malone, aside from his lying, tampering with evidence, and penchant for violence, was also a womanizing fool. In both entries, Malone’ll stop in mid-sentence to hit on some poor lass who unfortunately happened to choose a precise moment to cross his crooked path.

Hollywood Malone was lucky to have two likeable Irish mugs bring his antics to life: Pat O’Brien and James Whitmore.  Also an amiable array of costars, writers, directors and cinematographers – no doubt proving that the devil is indeed in the details. The movies fortunately are jokey film-noirish adventures, never attempting to justify the activities of their protagonist. The plots themselves are silly and predictable – it’s the riotous bumpy road from A to Z that fuels these rollicking vehicles.  And, in keeping with the Warner Archive standards, both titles, culled from excellent 35mm materials, look and sound swell.

So sit back and relax, but keep your hands on your wallets and valuables: John J. Malone takes no prisoners.

 

In 1945’s HAVING WONDERFUL CRIME (a title parody of the famous Broadway play and later RKO movie Having Wonderful Time), Malone gets involved with sleazy mystics, murder and mayhem, beginning in a Chicago burlesque house and ending at a posh vacation spa (which proves for some to literally be a last resort). This provides a beautiful diverse springboard for the not-so-shy shyster’s shenanigans through the various strata of 1940s urban society. The pacing is swift, thanks to the smooth direction by veteran comedy maven A. Edward Sutherland, working with an okay script that nevertheless took four cooks to concoct the narrative broth (Howard J. Green, Parke Levy, Craig Rice and Stewart Sterling). The cast is dynamite, with the supporting players saving the day for the leads. I mean, O’Brien is aces, but the inclusion of lowly young swinging couple/pals George Murphy and Carole Landis is a bit of a downer. They’re obviously supposed to be in the mold of Topper’s Kirbys (‘ceptin’ they’re alive) with mold being the operative word. I mean, let’s face it, even with a Lubitsch script (which this ain’t) Murphy and Landis are no Cary Grant and Connie Bennett. Landis tries hard, and isn’t too bad, but her cracks aren’t all that wise. It’s Murphy, however, who’s the lead anvil that sinks the picture whenever he opens his pie hole. He may have been a deft hoofer, but he’s a lousy light comic. Murphy has the wacky delivery of Mitch McConnell, minus the madcap persona. O’Brien, on the other hand, can drift into the frame, toss off a “Good morning, how are ya?” with his patented Warner Bros. pre-Code staccato and effortlessly get a laff.

Again, it’s the stellar support that saves the day with George Zucco and Lenore Aubert as mind-reading sham artists sharing top honors (Aubert being particularly adept at tossing out one-liners with panache). In close pursuit are such welcome pans as Gloria Holden, Wee Willie Davis, Chilli Williams, Rosemary LaPlanche, Emory Parnell and Dewey Robinson. From Sutherland’s silent days are nice bits from Chester Conklin, Vernon Dent, Claire McDowell, Mildred Harris and Frank Mayo.

Considering the director’s comic chops, it’s a bit startling to see some rather graphic murders in the pic (unusual for both a 1940s movie, to say nothing of a comedy); this sprinkling of mean-street elements (as indicative of the period) actually peps up CRIME, and, all-in-all, it’s an entertaining, fun show. The photography by RKO house D.P. Frank Redman is quite good, as is the score by the studio’s yeoman composer Leigh Harline.

 

It was a full five years before Malone tried his luck at crashing Hollywood again, and, in 1950, he hit pay dirt (and at MGM, no less) with the very unmarketable title of MRS. O’MALLEY AND MR. MALONE. The picture, mostly set on a Chicago-New York railroad, had the far more bankable moniker of “Once Upon a Train or The Loco-Motive” when it was a novel by Malone chronicler Stuart Palmer and the mouthpiece’s creator Craig Rice. The script, by the prolific William Bowers (Destry Rides Again), has a fair share of verbal barbs, although the mystery isn’t too mysterious. Indeed, even non-detective fans are likely to figure it out before the on-screen characters; however, as the travel ads used to state back in the day: Getting there is half the fun. In this case, it’s all the fun.

Directed by comedy veteran Norman Taurog, the picture casts James Whitmore as the dishonorable Malone; it’s one of his best roles (and only starring one) from his Spencer Tracy, Jr., period. Mrs. O’Malley is the seemingly mismatched Marjorie Main. As with all pros, these two demonstrate their considerable thesp abilities quite well and nimbly bounce zingers off each other like recipients in a human racquetball match.

There was little risk on Metro’s part, as this was B-movie in every aspect of the word. That said, a B-movie at MGM was an A-picture anywhere else. The look is extravagant, as are all the tech credits (Adolph Deutsche music, Ray June photography). The cast is superb, serving up the inhabitants of character-actor heaven, ca. 1950 (the “B” giveaway is the 69-minute running time).

Riding on and off the tracks are such notable punims as Fred Clark, Dorothy Malone, Douglas Fowley, Willard Waterman, Herb Vigran, Regis Toomey, Don Porter, Clinton Sundberg, James Burke, Frank Cady and Mae Clarke.

Whitmore’s Malone is in full womanizing mode, balancing love stuff betwixt his gorgeous secretary (Phyllis Kirk), Main’s even more gorgeous niece (beauteous starlet Nancy Saunders) and the (most gorgeous of all) ex-wife of an embezzler (the amazing Ann Dvorak, who, mercifully, has much to do and, as far as I’m concerned, steals the show with her sassy demeanor).

Malone must track down a sleazy client who skipped town owing the shyster a fortune. Mrs. O’Malley is headed toward the Big Apple to likewise collect some swag, a 50K boodle won on a phone-in radio show (naturally, upon hearing this, Malone is interested in looking out for her welfare).

O’Malley’s no fool and lets Malone play one, as she’s a mystery buff and the fact that bodies seem to pile up around him is like catnip to the bored spinster.

Suffice to say, Marjorie’s the main attraction in this movie.  As a wise and strangely sophisticated boarding-house owner from Proudfoot, MT, her expertise at identifying an obscure ditty proves to be her dream come true. When her grubby miner tenants ask her if she’s ready to leave Montana for the bright lights of Manhattan, she snaps, “I’ve been ready to leave for thirty years!”  En route, at a stopover in Chi, she even gets to warble a song, a horrific groaner entitled “Possum Up a Gun Stump” that is as lowbrow funny as it is agonizing.

I absolutely cherish one bit in MRS. O’MALLEY AND MRS. MALONE, and that’s where the aforementioned just-released felon/client throws a lavish soiree for Malone and Chicago’s upper crust of mobsters, entertainers and socialites – and ducks out before the party ends, sticking the swells with the tab. I personally find that admirable in that serves-ya-right karma sort of way.

There’s also a concurrently shocking and hilarious moment where a gob-smacked Waterman believes that Whitmore and Main are having sex in a locked bathroom (I can vividly now envision thousands of readers simultaneously shrieking “Ewwww!”).

That this melee of corpse and robbers is thoroughly enjoyed by the delighted female lead becomes underlined when she proudly unveils evidence to the D.A.: “There it is, big as death!” It’s funnier when you see it.

MGM, having turned down Martin & Lewis, was desperate to strike an economical mother lode at the box-office. MGM had Main under-used and under contract for years before loaning her out to the lowly Universal-International for The Egg and I, a bonanza that mushroomed into the Ma and Pa Kettle franchise, earning the major-minor studio millions. This particularly pissed off Metro, who now was ferociously prowling the Writers Building for a chance to cash in on their previous missed opportunity. “MGM’s New Scream Team!” blazed the uninspired ads (a head-butting two-shot, nearly identical to the posters for their 1949 hit Adam’s Rib). Really? What was the old one? The one-sheets went one further, banging audiences over the noggin with “The uproarious star of ‘Ma Kettle’ comedies” and “The tobacco-chewing sergeant of ‘Battleground’ is a riot” How’s that for a night-at-the-Movies incentive?

The idea that this combination could have survived more than one pairing is borderline brazen, but, gotta admit, in keeping with its prime male character tactics and ethics…it’s so Malone!

JOHN J. MALONE MYSTERY DOUBLE FEATURE.  Black-and-white.  Full frame [1.37:1].  Mono audio.  Made-to-order DVD-R from the Warner Archive Collection.  CAT # 1000547827.  SRP:  $21.99.

Available exclusively from The Warner Archive Collection:  www.warnerarchive.com

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Backhanded Continent

Lyricism and sarcasm (oh, damn it, “snarkasm”) are two “sm”s that rarely go together; but, in the underrated 1959 western masterpiece THE WONDERFUL COUNTRY (now, at last, on Blu-Ray from Kino Studio Classics/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios), based on Tom Lea’s excellent 1952 novel, they go fist in glove.

Lea’s book was the closest thing to the genre’s evocation of narrative poetry prior to the emergence of Cormac McCarthy.  Oscar-winning editor (Body and Soul) turned director Robert Parrish saw the possibilities and strove to convince his former leading man Gregory Peck (The Purple Plain) and fellow coworker Henry Fonda (Parrish was an editor on Young Mr. Lincoln) to sign on as the conflicted protagonist Martin Brady.  Both hands-down refused.  This proved to be a blessing in disguise, as the project then came under the auspices of Robert Mitchum (likely the only actor who had actually read the Lea work before a movie deal had ever been bandied about).  So adamant was Mitchum about bringing this correctly to the screen that the now-indie-minded star not only signed on for the lead, but took the entire package under his wing for his new production company, DRM (Dorothy and Robert Mitchum).  Mitchum approved wholeheartedly of Parrish, as they had gotten along swell when the latter assistant-directed on another seminal Mitchum title, 1952’s The Lusty Men; in fact, Parrish took over direction for several days when Nick Ray became ill (they had also recently completed the uneven drama Fire Down Below).  This was a celluloid partnership made in movie heaven, as THE WONDERFUL COUNTRY remains one of Mitchum’s greatest works (and performances) and unquestionably the finest movie Robert Parrish ever made.

The story, as indicated above, is a cynic’s delight (even the title is a sham), filmed with visual beauty and spoken with sparse but eloquent dialog (a terrific script by Robert Ardrey with uncredited assist from Walter Bernstein).  Martin Brady is an enforced ex-pat (he’s undeservedly wanted for justifiable homicide in the States), residing in Mexico as a top pistolero.  His employers are the notoriously powerful and wealthy Castro brothers.  The Castros are vengeful and vindictive dictatorial sibs, sort of like The Koch Brothers with a Cain and Abel complex.  One is the General of the military (Victor Manuel Mendoza), the other the governor (Pedro Armendariz in a bravura cameo); each wants the other liquidated – a decision an unswervingly loyal Brady can’t make (“You are so white American,” he is told by Armendariz when Mitchum’s character voices reservations about killing “my abominable brother”).

While yearning to cross the river into a U.S. border town, Brady’s magnificent ebony Andalusian stallion (a gift from the Castros, appropriately named Lagrimas, Spanish for “Tears”) spooks, leaving him on American soil with a broken leg.  The town, like everything in this movie, is a contradiction of terms – one side ‘Murican, the other Mex.

Brady is taken under the hamlet’s wing by a kindly doctor (the superb Charles McGraw in an uncharacteristically sympathetic role), the hard-boiled head of the local Texas Rangers (Albert Dekker) and a family of Jewish immigrants – whose Uncle (John Banner) has “gray” dealings with the Castros, and, thus reports to them as to Brady’s day-to-day actions.

Things become increasingly complicated as Brady begins to assimilate back into his American roots, and contemplates remaining in the land of his birth.  This is made further difficult when his services are requested by a martinet Major (Gary Merrill) who wants him to assist in annihilating a band of Apache renegades (forced out of their country by the U.S., and now living in Mexico, where the Castros, too, want them gone).  Brady’s plight worsens when he falls for the Major’s abused trophy wife (Julie London), whose sexual history mirrors Deborah Kerr’s in From Here to Eternity.

When Brady resorts to killing an anti-Semite bigot who murders his immigrant friend (Max Slaten) in a hate crime, the now-recovered gunman must sneak back into Mexico, and into the Castro’s good graces.  His refusal to assassinate either brother puts a price on the expat’s head (“You belong nowhere!” decrees the relentless Governor), resulting in the now-wanted “foreigner” wandering into the Mexican hills, where he is befriended by a self-exiled mountain family (headed by Mitchum’s real-life best bud Anthony Caruso).

And there you have it – the underlying scenario and theme of THE WONDERFUL COUNTRY, the cruel joke being that the title is a myth.  There is no wonderful country; like El Dorado and Xanadu, it exists only in hypocritical minds and for unrealistic dreamers.  And Brady is not the only outcast – EVERYONE in the movie is.  The Castros are “cast out” from each other via blood, the immigrant family can’t fit into the violent land, the Major’s wife is a stunning misanthrope in a failed marriage, the Mexican mountain brood can’t function within their society, and, of course, the Apaches have been tossed into a human ping-pong match to and fro across the borders.  Even the Major’s troop are a sore-thumb pariah unit – a battalion of “buffalo soldiers,” an all-black regiment, led by a conservative white guy.

THE WONDERFUL COUNTRY is an extraordinary movie on every level.  Natch, prime kudos go to star-producer Mitchum, who has never been better (and that’s saying plenty).  His performance is subtly spectacular, quietly voicing his problems of adjusting to humanity.  But it goes beyond that level.  At the beginning of the movie, Mitchum speaks with a slight Spanish accent, the result of decades living in Mexico; as he convalesces in Texas, he gradually loses the Latino speech patterns, but slowly regains them when forced to seek refuge back with his former employers.  Mitchum’s uttering of the word “gringo” is tantamount to the worst four-letter word ever spoken on the uncensored screen.

The supporting cast is aces too; aside from the aforementioned participants, THE WONDERFUL COUNTRY also features Jack Oakie as a traveling salesman, Chuck Roberson as the racist, Jay Novello, Mike Kellin and sports legend Leroy “Satchel” Paige as an officer with the African-American cavalry.  Author Lea thought enough of the project to appear in a small role as a barber who attempts to help Mitchum literally clean up his act.

And the praise continues.  Not only does Parrish’s forceful yet sensitive direction make its mark, but it’s splendidly rendered via the striking widescreen Technicolor photography of Floyd Crosby and Alex Phillips.  And, last but certainly not least, there is the absolutely brilliant score by Alex North, one of his most beauteous and optimum achievements.  For years, the Brady theme appended a plethora of those UA Movie Soundtrack compilation albums (you know, with themes from The Magnificent Seven, The Apartment, The Pink Panther, Exodus, etc.) that were perennial bestsellers for the studio’s music subsidiary from the late 1950s-early 70s.  Finally, in the 1990s, I found a complete import CD soundtrack.  I play it constantly to this day.

The Kino Studio Classics Blu-Ray of THE WONDERFUL COUNTRY is…well, wonderful.  Crystal clear and luxuriant in its depiction of the sensational Mexican location work (although it’s not quite as jaw-dropping as an actual Technicolor print I once saw).

I defy anyone not to have lagrimas-filled eyes when this movie ends.  My love for this picture can be extended to the following brash claim, simply that I unabashedly consider it to be one best westerns ever filmed!

THE WONDERFUL COUNTRY.  Color.  Widescreen [1.66:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios.  CAT # K1736.  SRP:  $29.95.

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Caf-fiends

The ultimate filmic depiction of the term “just desserts” (assuming one enjoys their after-dinner treats with a cup of joe) THE BIG HEAT returns to Limited Edition Blu-Ray, courtesy of Twilight Time/Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

We’re, of course, enthusiastically praising not only the joys of film noir, but, particularly, the merits of this 1953 seminal example of the genre at its peak. It’s sort of silly to explain the plot at length; I mean by now the movie is practically a part of our national culture. The Sydney Boehm screenplay (from the William P. McGivern Saturday Evening Post serial), wrapped around the standard scenario of a wronged dedicated cop out to smash the corrupt system, is typical noir fodder. The bizarre manner in which the loose ends are tied up is what gives THE BIG HEAT its jamocha punch. 110% of this hellish detour’s success belongs to the pic’s director – the near-mythic, equally hellish Fritz Lang.

What attracted Lang to the project is the one aspect of THE BIG HEAT that everyone remembers: the unusual deadly weapon that several characters are assaulted with. Granted, the big heat of the title can apply to the intensity of the widespread political corruption spread throughout the narrative…or the numerous instances of gunplay…or the fact that the lead’s wife gets fried in a car-bomb gone awry…For me, and, as I suspect, for Lang as well, the title refers to the use of cinema’s strangest lethal equalizer, the pre-cursor of Mr. Coffee.

Now, coffee as weaponry or simply a torture device certainly sounds unique; for Lang this was essentially business as usual. One must bear in mind that this was the same guy who terrified confused film producers with his idea for a horror movie wherein vampires came out of televised video receivers to conquer their human victims. While this is undoubtedly an outrageous premise, it becomes even more so when one realizes that the director suggested this to the boys at UFA in 1918 (thus beating the Japanese to The Ring by more than 80 years!). Then again, Lang is also the dude who, in cahoots with lover and future spouse Thea von Harbou, has always been suspected of murdering Lisa Rosenthal, his first wife…who later lived a Sunset Boulevard existence in semi-decay, regaling an ongoing barrage of starlets and hookers with his extreme sexual demands, while his Nurse Ratched-like attendant (brought over with him from Germany where, depending upon whom you believe, he A) escaped to freedom or B) turned down Nazi generosity from the talons of Adolf & Co.) presided over their nominal needs. That this crumbling no-nonsense health provider was later revealed to actually be Lang’s third wife, adds that extra spice to the already aberrant mix.

Bride number three, it should be noted, goes back to Lang’s obsession with Marlene Dietrich – which actually began before Marlene became Marlene, in 1922 when Fritz shot graphic full-frontal scenes of Anita Berber for Dr. Mabuse the Gambler. Berber, who was, in essence, Dietrich’s role model, expired before the end of the decade, but UFA elders long recall Lang’s specific demands on what color to dye her pubic hair for these sequences, knowing all-too-well that they would be tossed into the refuse bin. Lang finally had his way with Marlene during the production of the 1952 western Rancho Notorious; it was a short-lived affair that Dietrich vehemently denied existed in that age-old tradition of “the lady doth protest too much.” Personal photos retrieved after the director’s passing showed much 1930s-era cavorting betwixt the Teutonic twosome…until closer examination revealed that the “Marlene” in the pix was really the soon-to-be long suffering nurse (an actress ironically christened with the big-heatish moniker of Lily Latte) before decades of abuse stole her looks, and, in all likelihood, a reasonable portion of her sanity. Their tale of one-sided unrequited love eerily resembles the exploits of the infamous Vampire of Dusseldorf, Peter Kurten, whose wife frequently accompanied him during his 1920s reign of terror – acting as his one-woman support group/mop-up crew. Claiming hundreds of victims before being caught and executed, Kurten was the template for the Peter Lorre character in Lang’s immortal 1931 masterpiece M.

By comparison, a bubbling pot of hot coffee in the puss almost seems a mild choice of vengeance…in fact, more like a capo’s cappuccino or a wicked designer latte on the rampage.

The non-liquid star of THE BIG HEAT is Glenn Ford – and he’s pretty good as the honest-to-the-point-of-maniacal flatfoot. Ford is sort of like a kinder, gentler version of the lunatic from Sidney Kingsley‘s Detective Story, but way less corny than the movie version’s Kirk Douglas. Ford, father of a remarkably normal little girl, is married to creepy Jocelyn Brando. My use of the word “creepy” is in no way a thumbs down critique of Ms. Brando’s adequate acting abilities…It’s just that…well, as the sister of the far more noted Marlon, she…how can I say it? SHE LOOKS LIKE BRANDO IN A DRESS AND WIG! I must shamefully confess that for years I told gullible movie-lovers that Jocelyn really didn’t exist – that she was Marlon’s alter ego…appearing in drag in a moderately successful second career. And they believed me. Brando does seem to satisfy the easily enraged Ford (another “heat” reference) – pacifying the copper with both her girl-next-door carnality and the ability to cook him meals featuring the biggest baked potatoes I’ve ever seen. Lang’s obvious contempt for the goody-goody wife is evidenced by her shocking firebomb death – shot in virtually the exact (to use a Brando-related term) method as Oliver Hardy lighting the stove in Blockheads.

THE BIG HEAT is filled to the brim with lust and passion; it’s a female-fueled sexual drama. Jeanette Nolan is the harpy wife of a deceased high-ranking police official who holds the local gangland hostage; she might be the movie’s strongest character if it wasn’t for the movie’s strongest character – nympho gun moll Debbie, brilliantly essayed by the magnificent Gloria Grahame in noir‘s most iconic siren performance. Hell surely hath no fury like a woman scorned – more so for a woman scalded. Grahame, who has the misfortune of being psycho-thug Lee Marvin’s squeeze, is the victim of a plethora of physical and verbal degradation, which, she often appears to actually crave. This was a bold undertaking for a 1953 movie. Although Deb has to pay the price, it’s still a bargain for viewers watching the decades-old production code seemingly evaporate as the 90-minute running time is unspooled. Grahame is not only the recipient of THE BIG HEAT‘s hottest and violent scene, she also has the best lines. “Whenever Vince [the Marvin character] talks business, I go out and get my legs waxed” she boasts to an unimpressed Ford. Evaluating the modest hotel room the now-ex-detective is resigned to living in, Grahame tosses off her apt evaluation, “Hmmm…I like it – early nothing.” Once disfigured by America’s favorite boiling beverage, bad girl Grahame in effect becomes Java-the-Slut, utilizing the taste treat to extract her own deliciously planned revenge.

We can’t say enough about Lee Marvin, either; THE BIG HEAT was a ground-breaking role for the actor, forever locking him into 1950s villainy. This is the first movie where the actor displays his patented hanging drop-jaw look (the Italian posters prominently feature him as some gangster version of Nosferatu). He has some nifty dialogue too; when describing Debbie to his cohorts, he tersely synopses her in a one-line knock-off: “Six days a week she shops – on the seventh she rests.”

So much of the dialogue was eyebrow-raising for the Howdy Doody generation. There is much discussion of psycho sex crimes (not surprisingly, a Lang-friendly topic) visually punctuated by pathetic hooker (here referred to as B-girl) Lucy Chapman’s (perennially sad actress Dorothy Green) ravaged nude corpse, which investigators are told was unearthed covered with “…cigarette burns on her body.” Then-starlet Carolyn Jones, too, becomes a subsequent human ashtray, or, to be blunt, a butt for butts. Obscene phone calls received by Brando (“…you can fill in the four-letter words”) comprise an audible event never before witnessed in American cinema with the possible off-camera participation of Henry Hathaway. And, finally, the murderous confrontation between Grahame and Nolan is succinctly and accurately encapsulated as a queen of the jungle battle of “…sisters under the mink.”

Alexander Scourby, the big boss of THE BIG HEAT, is fairly ineffectual in his reign – outclassed by the flick’s powerful women. A large portrait (presumably his mother, and, in actuality, actress Celia Lovsky from God-knows what other Columbia Picture) dominates his office; Scourby is nonetheless appropriately oily, much resembling fellow Columbia crime czar Morris Carnovsky in Dead Reckoning (with a tincture of Harry Cohn but a touch more finesse).

Lang’s reliance on heroic crippled dregs recalls his UFA period; again, here it’s a woman – actress Edith Evanson – a literal personification of a junkyard dog (she works in a city dump).

Much despised by his contemporaries (crews constantly devised ways to kill him, a popular plan being to drop a Klieg light on his head), Lang nevertheless did have some ardent supporters. Ford and Grahame would be reunited with the director the following year for an adaptation of Jean Renoir‘s 1938 thriller La Bete Humaine – released in 1954 as Human DesireSylvia Sidney adored him; after her death, the actress’s apartment was found to be littered with photos of Lang, the most prominent adorning her refrigerator. George Sanders was always ready to work with Fritz, as was Joan Bennett, who, along with husband, Walter Wanger, went into partnership with the director. Edward G. Robinson and Dan Duryea likewise followed suit.

Upon its release, THE BIG HEAT’s reception was, climate-wise, tepid; critics pegged it as a distasteful standard ground-out piece of claptrap; the movie-going public, always more savvy than the stale aging members of the Fifth Estate, saw the worth in the piece – making it a modest box-office favorite.

Lang, constantly on the forefront of technological advances, chose to record the movie in stereophonic sound (the tracks unfortunately now lost), which presumably underlined the gat usage, explosions and, no doubt, mocha-java sizzle (the aforementioned Human Desire would be one of the first Columbias in the new 1.85 widescreen process).

The 2012 TT Blu-Ray 4K-scan of THE BIG HEAT was hands-down the best copy I’ve ever seen – each Charles (no relation) Lang shot looking like a large format studio still. The soundtrack was crisp and dynamic (although I wish they’d have found that stereo!). The music is ho-hum, mostly relying upon the house themes arranged by nefarious Gower Gulch employee Mischa Bakaleinikoff. Actual original bits were composed by uncredited Henry Vars, auteur of Chained For Life, Love Slaves of the Amazon, The Leech Woman, House of the Damned and Flipper’s New Adventure (but admittedly also Budd Boetticher’s Seven Men From Now and Frank Borzage’s China Doll). There are some nice nightclub accordion and guitar themes, so indicative of the decade, including a subtle homage to Ford via a rendition of “Put the Blame on Mame,” the song from his noir triumph with Rita HayworthGilda. All of this is accessible as an IST (Isolated Score Track), if one feels the need for Lang-like desecration.  That this terrific platter quickly sold out (becoming an eBay Big Bucks seller) is not surprising.  Noir and HEAT fans can rejoice, as this new 2016 Encore edition retains the former superlative transfer; but there’s added incentive for purchasing the disc, as, unlike its earlier rendition, this redux comes with a stash of extras, including individual takes on the movie by Michael Mann and Martin Scorsese, plus audio commentary by cine-historians Nick Redman, Julie Kirgo and Lem Dobbs (natch, there’s the IST option and the 1953 trailer, the latter which graced the 2012 version).

The appeal of THE BIG HEAT grows more ravenous every year. It’s now deservedly considered one of the top noirs of all time. When, in eons past, I used to cite it as a humdinger, folks would respond to the title with a blasé “Qu’est-ce que c’est?” Happily, the movie’s fame has now changed this reaction to Nescafe. But, you know, there’s an additional pensive perk to watching THE BIG HEAT that seems to transcend its genre roots. I sometimes think (perchance too hard) of the people that made it happen, a kind of Unholy Three covenant. I think of Lang in his twilight years, nearly blind, still guarded by Lily, his wizened Dietrich clone, carrying on one-sided talks with an ever-present toy sock monkey. He would sit in front of a non-vampire invading TV set, anxiously awaiting the next episode of his favorite show, Green Acres (he wasn’t alone – it was Orson Welles‘ favorite too). I think of Gloria Grahame, whose torrid affair with Nicholas Ray resulted in a pregnancy and loveless marriage – culminating with her seducing Ray’s teenage son (whom she later wed)…I think of Ford – for over a half century regaling listeners with his grueling account of being one of the first G.I.s to enter a concentration camp at World War II’s end – a shadowy life-changing tale that, after his demise, was shown to be a hoax (he served in the war, but never left the States). I wonder if he had ever realized that sensitive, somber, troubled Glenn Ford was the greatest performance of his career. Perhaps it’s just them – though THE BIG HEAT, more than any other mean-street movie, has always made me ponder about the dark side in all of us. Or maybe it’s all a load of crap…Hey, I could use a cup of coffee…I’ll take it noir…no milk…no cream…and not in the face.

THE BIG HEAT. Black and white.  Full frame [1.33:1; 1080p High Definition].  1.0 DTS-HD MA.  Twilight Time/Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.  Cat # 8-11956-02100-7.  SRP:  $29.95.

Limited Edition of 3000; available exclusively through Screen Archives Entertainment [www.screenarchives.com] and Twilight Time [www.twilighttimemovies.com]. 

 

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Greeks Bearing Rifts

While channel surfing, back in 2015, I hit upon a new American mini-series entitled THE SLAP.  It was flawed, but interesting and different enough for me to immediately glom that it must have been ripped off from some British, Australian or European source.  No surprise that sometime later Acorn Media/RLJ Entertainment/Film Victoria offered up the original 2011 Melbourne-lensed 8-part show (now available on DVD), and certainly no shock that it is leaps and bounds superior to its Silly Puttied remake.

In essence, American Slap is exactly that – a dumbed-down edition of its Aussie parent.  The show is like a Lifetime Movie version of Mourning Becomes Electra, with the accent on “mourning” and starring Carmen Electra.  Like all contemporary American-produced TV entries/movies, it’s too perfect.  Everyone looks like they were cast from Chippendale/Victoria Secret cattle calls.  All live in beautiful homes, have unrealistic dream jobs and are immune to problems involving weight, acne, bad hair, hemorrhoids and the dreaded heartbreak of psoriasis.

2011’s THE SLAP takes a simple act of insane violence, and masterfully uses it to rip off a phony veil masking our post-Millennium society.  At a Greek-Australian mixed couple’s backyard celebration, the children play while the adults play around.  Amongst the tykes is Hugo (Julian Mineo), a junior sociopath in the making, an out-of-control urchin whose aberrant behavior is nurtured by his negligent unhip hippie-esque parents (Melissa George, Anthony Hayes), who encourage the child’s awfulness as unbridled freedom of expression.  Since this encompasses destroying other people’s property, and then grabbing a bat and threatening the other children, it’s not surprising that one outspoken, womanizing, abusive, ruthless (aka, financially successful) parent (Alex Dimitriades) literally takes matters into his own hand, and smacks the little bastard.  This causes a split among all these “friends” and relatives that ruptures the relationships forever, ultimately causing more violence, sexual misconduct, a heinous court trial and the end of marriage as we know it.  Truth be told, I’m vehemently against violence, but I wanted to do some slapping myself – on the psycho tot’s mater and pater.

Before continuing along this vein, it’s pertinent to do a bit more comparisons between the two versions.

Simply put, Australian SLAP pulls no punches.  The protagonists aren’t perfect specimens, the kids have weight problems, the gorgeous nymphet babysitter (Sophie Lowe) that lead hubby lusts after (and vice versa) is attractive, but not swimsuit model ridiculous (as in the Yank pretty-not-gritty rendition).  The horrible couple who sired Junior Ted Bundy ain’t that svelte either (the male version being on the dumpy side; the wife, a little worse for wear than her American cousin – a point worth noting as the actress portraying her – the excellent Melissa George – revived her role for the U.S. production, the only repeat cast member).

Other issues I had with the candy-ass version:  One of the lead character’s cancer-stricken mother (Gillian Jones) is not a celebrated beautiful artiste, living in a spectacular mansion and planning to end her days with another daughter at Oxford; she’s an average middle class mom, living in a dog-eared apartment, who quietly succumbs midway through the proceedings.

I could go on and on, but methinks you get the message.

Australian SLAP has the better cast, too (although Thandie Newton did splendid work in the American show); Nigerian-British thesp Sophie Okonedo is absolutely spot-on as the wife feeling trapped by her husband’s overbearing extremely Greek immigrant parents.  Jonathan LaPaglia (yeah, Anthony’s younger bro) is perfect as the conflicted husband, who knows not which side to take, thinks with his dick and puts the kibosh on his okay life (he has a listless, though decent-paying, job unlike his super-size-me American counterpart, who was assistant the New York City mayor or some such nonsense.  I forget.).

Perhaps the most famous of Australian SLAP‘s roster is the actress playing Anouk, the Ashkenazi Jewish TV executive, who boy-toys it up with a rising actor/rock musician (Oliver Ackland).  It’s Essie Davis, unlike anything her U.S. TV fans are used to seeing.  She’s a stunning 41-year-old woman rife with problems, phobias and an amorous urge spectacularly realized in a rather graphic sex scene (naturally played down in the After School Special American edition).  Apparently, she has learned much sophisticated boudoir expertise from her Phyrne Fisher alter ego (or, to paraphrase the Geico ad, “Anouk know where Anouk go!”).  It should also be mentioned that her character was interpreted in the American tame-lame series by its most famous cast member, Uma Thurman; it also seems likely that Thurman watched the Australian episodes, as she seems to be deliberately doing an Essie Davis impression (or Zombie-Anouk, as Thurman is minus the nuances of authentic emotion).

THE SLAP is broken up into eight episodes, each chronicling one of the main characters: Hector (the beleaguered, weak husband, LaPaglia); Anouk (the Essie Davis character); Harry (the slap-happy mofo who instigates the entire mess, Dimitriades); Connie (the nubile babysitter with the overactive libido, aka, Lowe); Rosie (the Melissa George horrible mom); Manolis (the aging patriarch of the Greek clan, yearning to touch a young woman’s breasts once more before he dies – a reasonable request, believably enacted by Lex Marinos); Aisha (Okonedo’s unhappy spouse, who flirts with slipping into adultery); and Richie (Connie’s closeted boyfriend with a penchant for Internet stalking, Blake Davis).

THE SLAP deservedly won a slew of awards from the various Australian Oscar and Emmy equivalents, as well as a coveted UK BAFTA nominee for Best International Program.

The direction (by Robert Connolly, Jessica Hobbs, Matthew Saville and coproducer Tony Ayres) and the writing (by Emily Ballou, Alice Bell, Brendan Cowell, Kris Mrksa and Cate Shortland, from Christos Tsiolkas’ bestselling novel) is top-line, as is Andrew Commis’ terrific widescreen camerawork and Irine Vela and Antony Partos’ music (in cool, pulsating surround stereo).

The Acorn DVD 3-disc set looks and sounds just swell, about as good as it can get in the format.

Long story short, THE SLAP is enthusiastically recommended for those rapidly diminishing creatures who crave engrossing, grown-up fare.  It’s so addictive that one might be tempted to view the entire series in a single sitting.  As a further purchase incentive, there are hours of extras, including deleted scenes, a making-of documentary and social media clips.

Short story short, whose ever side one takes, THE SLAP is sure to make a hit.

THE SLAP.  Color. Widescreen [2.40:1; 16 x 9 anamorphic]; Dolby Digital surround audio.  Acorn Media/RLJ Entertainment (in association with DCD rights, ABC, matchbox, Film Victoria).  Cat # AMP-2440.  SRP:  $39.99.

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