Thursday, 7 April 2022

THE GREAT JEWEL ROBBER (1950)



By Gary Deane

 

Her: “You’ll have to be better than this, Gerry. I’ve seen bigger rings on a peppermint stick”.

Him (lying): “That was my mother’s ring”.

Her: “Your mother’s? I didn’t know that”.

Him: “There’s a lot of things you don’t know, baby.”

 

Blessed with arrogant good looks and a rogue charm, Gerard Graham Dennis was meant to live brazenly. Though born into poverty,  his tastes would later run only to the finer things: swank automobiles, bespoke apparel, French champagne, and beautiful women with models’ cheekbones. Beneath it all, however, lay little more than a shameless talent for deceit and a reckless willingness to defy the law.

When still a young teenager in Southern Ontario in the 1930’s, Dennis was arrested for petty thievery and sent to reform school. Upon release, he headed for Montreal. It was there he found out it was just as easy to steal a fortune in valuables as it was kitchen change from coffee cans. One evening, after robbing an aging gold-mining heiress of  $75,000 worth of jewels, he headed to the US with an American girlfriend, Eleanor Harris. Ending up in Westchester County, a leafy and well-to-do enclave just outside New York City,  he took to plundering some of the precinct’s poshest properties. One night, however, he was caught in the act by a wealthy New Rochelle boat-builder. Dennis shot him and got away,  pockets stuffed with cash and jewelry. 

During this period, Dennis also had been teaching himself how to break up precious stones and remake jewelry so as to avoid the underworld markdown on stolen goods. He began posing as a legitimate trade rep, unafraid to ask list prices for his merchandise. Then, in the summer of 1947, he made his first big mistake. He picked up an attractive young socialite, Gloria Horowitz, in a Manhattan nightclub and, not long after, sent her out to sell a few of the diamonds to a jeweler in Philadelphia. A suspicious clerk called the police and Horowitz was busted while Dennis,  out of harm’s way, watched from across the street. The terrified debutante would spill everything and, for the first time, the cops had a line on him.

Knowing he’d been fingered, Dennis left New York for Los Angeles, where he lost no time in setting up shop. Touring around in a Cadillac convertible or, as the occasion demanded, a plush Lincoln sedan, he began to woo well-heeled Hollywood celebrities and bigwigs, representing himself as a prosperous jewelry dealer and aspiring actor. He was becoming a fixture at parties held in some of the tonier areas of L.A. like Beverly Hills, Brentwood, and Bel Air. There, he was able to case homes at his leisure, then later return to rob them, tracking the owners’ movements by following the society pages, travel news, and gossip columns. Among his victims were movie stars Errol Flynn, Alexis Smith, Joan Crawford, Dennis Morgan, and Loretta Young. 

Along the way, he acquired a new girlfriend, a former school teacher from Toronto, Betty Richie, and in early 1949 told her he was going to divorce his wife back East. He kissed Richie goodbye and flew to Cleveland to unload a cache of diamonds. As he sat talking to the jewelry dealer, the man’s nephew walked in, recognized Dennis from a wanted poster, and ‘phoned the cops. Within minutes they showed up and arrested him without incident, his only response being, “Well, looks like you fellows have got me, doesn’t it?” In his pocket was a hand-written list of others whom he'd planned to rob next, including Charlie Chaplin, Ronald Coleman, Alice Faye, Hedy Lamarr, Jack Benny, Mary Pickford, Dorothy Lamour, and Louis B. Mayer. A name crossed was that of Bing Crosby because, as Dennis explained, he was a big fan of the crooner.

Authorities estimated that Dennis had stolen over a million dollars worth of valuables since arriving in Los Angeles. Beverly Hills Police Chief Clinton Anderson expressed grudging admiration for the robber, saying, “He’s one of the greatest burglars whoever operated.” Dennis undoubtedly was one of the greatest jewel thieves up until then. But the party was over. ‘The Raffles of Beverly Hills’ was convicted, sentenced to 18 years-to-life, and sent to Auburn State Prison in Upstate New York to serve his time, much of it at hard labor.  

Closely following the news of Dennis’s exploits was Warner Brothers producer Bryan Foy, head of the studio’s B unit. Foy’s career as a creative producer would span 200-plus films, including B noir classics Canon City (1948), Hollow Triumph (1948), Trapped (1949), Highway 301 (1950), Women’s Prison (1955), and Blueprint for Murder (1961). Foy also happened to be a friend of Stanley Church, the beleaguered mayor of New Rochelle, who had initiated the nationwide search for Dennis. Church had kept in touch with Foy, providing him updates on the less-than-gentlemanly bandit whose boldness had profoundly rattled the good burghers of Westchester County. With Dennis’s arrest getting play in the national media, Foy was primed to produce a movie about the affair (one in which Church would get to appear as himself, in an engagingly bouncy performance). Foy then went looking for a screenwriter who would do credit to Dennis’s fierce criminal adventuring. His pick was Borden Chase, whose scripts were valued for their straightforward dialog, clearly-outlined action, and powerful emotion as evidenced by films such as Howard Hawk’s Red River (1948) and Anthony Mann’s Winchester ’73 (1950).

Chase had grown up on the mean streets of New York in the 20’s and had lived a turbulent life prior to becoming a writer. He had been gangster Frankie Yale’s chauffeur—at least until Al Capone had Yale killed. Chase had a native affinity, if not affection, for wayward rogues such as Gerard Graham Dennis. In The Great Jewel Robber, he renders Dennis (played by David Brian) an engaging, living-and-breathing character, despite his sins, which come fast and furious. By the film’s thirty-minute mark, the master-thief has been busted for robbery, escaped from prison (where, but for a sadistic warden, there had been some hope for his reform), acquired forged documents, crossed the border to the US, planned and pulled off a job, and been beaten up and hospitalized. Along the way, he’d also enticed a landlord’s daughter, consorted with countless shady ladies, and seduced a hospital nurse, Martha Rollins (Marjorie Reynolds) who would become his lover, wife, and, later, accomplice.

David Brian, a fearless Viking of an actor, bolts through The Great Jewel Robber with great style, always one move ahead of the authorities and always with a different woman on his arm. The film’s females are a glamorous bunch: Perdita Chandler as the cross-border girlfriend who’s as just crooked as he is; Alix Talton, as a hard-nosed department store buyer whom he picks up in a hotel lobby in New York; and Jacqueline deWit, playing a haughty Beverly Hill socialite whom he cultivates and turns into his dupe. Like most of the women who cross Dennis’s path, each will pay a price, especially Nurse Rollins, who tends to him while he recovers from a beating and then runs away with him. Because of her caring nature  and the fact she loves him, Rollins is vulnerable and it isn’t long before he begins to abuse her. Forever suspicious and jealous, he says, “You haven’t been doing anything you weren’t supposed to, have you, you dirty little slut?” and strikes her. Later, as she watches him attempt to pick up a dishy blonde (Cleo Moore), Rollins can only look on with a combination of dismay and resignation. By this time, Dennis’s maverick appeal has worn out its welcome, and, like Rollins, we’re hoping to see him get what he deserves. 


David Brian was the natural choice to play Dennis, a  manipulating cad equal parts suavity and viciousness. Brian had already featured in similar roles with Joan Crawford in Flamingo Road (1949) and The Damned Don’t Cry (1950), and would star with her again in The Woman is Dangerous (1952). It was Crawford who’d first encouraged Brian, then a New York stage actor, to come to Hollywood, where he'd have a long career in movies and television. Ironically, Brian would be most rewarded by both critics and audiences alike for his moving performance as a fair-minded Southern lawyer who defends a black man facing down a vicious lynch mob in Intruder in the Dust (1949), based on a book by William Faulkner. He also played on the right side of the law as crusading D.A. Paul Garrett in the TV courtroom series Mr. District Attorney, which reprised his earlier radio role. In real life, Brian was one of Hollywood’s nice guys, known and respected within the community for his graciousness, musical accomplishment, and life-long fundraising efforts on behalf of the Volunteers of America, a charitable organization. There  were also few men-about-town who looked so well-attired in a dinner jacket.


The Great Jewel Robber, its story ‘ripped from the headlines', is unflinching and intense, with director Peter Godfrey wringing all the drama and suspense he can out of Borden Chase’s charged script. Three times Dennis is approached by the authorities just at the moment he thinks he’s in the clear. On one occasion, police are called to a party at a Beverly Hills residence after a priceless necklace goes missing.  Dennis has stashed the piece of jewelry in a plant pot but has stayed close by. A dour-looking cop who’s been sniffing around approaches him and says, “That’s a funny place to put a thing like that”. A started Dennis starts to move for his gun, just as the cop says, “I mean, that flower, there”, pointing past him to a towering orchid.

Godfrey had walked on the dark side of the street before, directing a number of fraught melo-noirs including Hotel Berlin (1945), The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947), Cry Wolf (1947), and The Woman in White (1948). He would follow a few years later with one of his tidiest film noirs, Please Murder Me (1956), starring Raymond Burr and Angela Lansbury. Godfrey had begun his career in live anthology television (Lux Video Theater, The Star and the Story, The Ford Television Theater) and was a skilled craftsman who handled even lesser material with conviction. Though a B project by budget and billing, The Great Jewel Robber often thinks and looks more like an A feature, thanks to Chase’s robust screenplay and Godfrey’s correspondingly forceful point of view. Occupying similar territory as other great A/B crime titles such as Pushover (1954), Rogue Cop (1954), or Private Hell 36 (1954), The Great Jewel Robber is a classic noir crime procedural that still begs to live large once more. 



 (A longer version of this article appeared in NOIR CITY e-magazine)

Saturday, 2 April 2022

UNE BALLE DANS LE CANON aka A BULLET IN THE GUN BARREL (1958)





 

By Gary Deane

 

The term film noir first saw the light of day in the late 1930s, coined at the time by a conservative French press inflamed by the dispiriting narratives and displays of questionable morality that had been darkening domestic movie screens for nearly a decade, 

The long-gathering storm surrounding the suspect films—ranging from Jean Renoir’s corrosive La Chienne (The Bitch, 1930) to Pierre Chenals’ cold-blooded Le Dernier tournant (The Last Turn, 1939)—had hit critical mass. One reviewer, having had enough of doomed men obsessed with little more than money and sex, as well as women too vulgar to qualify as femmes fatales, assailed the films as “sordid and bestial noir, with characters who are black down to the third basement of their soul.” 

Adding fuel to the fire was the unsparing existential bleakness of the wartime and postwar releases to come, such as George-Henri Cluzot’s Le Corbeau (The Raven, 1943), Henri Decoin’s La Fille du diable (The Devil’s Daughter, 1946), Cluzot’s Quai des Orfèvres (1947), and Yvés Allegret’s Manèges (1950). These, too, drew critical fire, as did a cycle to follow of grim gangster titles even less graced by pathos, e.g. Jacques Becker’s Touchez pas au grisbi (‘54), Jules Dassin’s Du Rififi chez les hommes (‘55), and Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob le flambeur (‘56). Critical circles both on the right and the left began to take aim at what they now feared to be nothing but an   American-styled glorification of conspicuous consumption and cheap criminals in two-toned Cadillacs (1).

Caught up in all this Gallic sucking-and-blowing was Michel Deville, a young director and contemporary of the insurgent ‘New Wave’ of French cinephiles such as Francois Truffaut, who had since taken to denouncing all classical French moviemaking as ‘le cinéma de papa’ and ‘le cinéma de qualité’. Among those named-and-shamed for their apparent lack of artistic conviction and ‘authorship’ were journeyman studio directors such as Julien Duvivier, Henri Decoin, Henri Verneuil, Jean Delannoy, Andre Cayatte, and Gilles Grangier. Deville had already worked under Decoin on several studio productions, including Razzia sur la chnouf (1955), a shimmering film noir, starring Jean Gabin and Lino Ventura and now part of the French canon. However, like Jean-Pierre Melville and Louis Malle, Deville wanted to plot his own course while, at the same time, attempting to remain on good terms professionally with the Nouvelle Vague. With his apprenticeship behind him, he jumped at the chance to direct a film based on Une balle dans le canon, a chilling crime novel written by Albert Simonin, whose stories and adaptations (including  Becker’s Touchez pas au grisbi), were  hugely popular with French audiences hungry for big-shouldered polars (crime thrillers) and policiers (police procedurals).


Simonin’s convoluted, enveloping tale, in which motives and actions are suspect or unknown, is one of the many pleasures to be found in Une balle dans le canon. Its protagonists, Dick (Roger Hanin) and his pal, Tony (Pierre Vaneck), veterans of the war in Indochina, have returned to Paris with twenty-five million francs in hand. At some point, the money is supposed to be passed over to a local crime boss. Instead, the two take their 'commission' and blow it on everything in general and nothing in particular; the rest they’re persuaded to invest in a high-end cabaret, ‘Club Tip-Tap’, on the understanding they can cash out when needed. But Pépère (Paul Frankeur), the mobster who’d sold them the share in the club,  tells them afterward that if they want see the money again, they’re going to have to pull a job for him. He says he’ll split the proceeds of the robbery with them, though the two suspects he has other plans. Dick, the more brazen of the two, figures things will work out; Tony thinks the opposite and is ready to get away and disappear. But by this time, there’s no turning back for the pair, nor for Tony’s guileless girlfriend, Brigitte (Mijanou Bardot), who also happens to be the target’s daughter.

Roger Hanin, a fierce charmer both on and off the screen, is in top form in Une balle. Hanin would go on to star in movies and television for more than five decades, often playing take-charge types not to be messed with.  Appearances in classic noir included those in Robert Hossein’s dire Les Salauds vont en enfer (‘55) , the stylish Le Désordre et la nuit (’58) directed by Gilles Grangier, and Jean Luc-Godard’s provocative New Wave pastiche, Breathless (1960).

Hanin’s partner-in-crime, Pierre Vaneck, first introduced to French filmgoers as ‘the new Gerard Philipe’, would later develop into a highly-regarded actor starring in movies and TV as well as theater. Une balle was one of Vaneck’s first films and in it, he's able to muster considerably more than just a  pretty boy’s bland vigor, as Tony’s money troubles go from bad to worse and his relationship with Brigitte becomes increasingly precarious.


For her part, Mijanou Bardot fares less well, not offering much more than a winsome presence. The younger sibling of Brigitte Bardot, she more resembles a young Brigitte Fonda than la Bardot, exhibiting only occasional flashes of her sister’s bombshell allure. But then Mijanou was never given that much of a chance to mature as a performer. Only in Eric Rohmer’s lushly seductive La Collectionneuse (1967), do we get an idea of her as the actress she might have been. Regretfully, she’s probably best known for her part as a frisky French exchange student in Albert Zugsmith’s weirdly awful Sex Kittens Go to College (1960), sharing the bill with Mamie Van Doren and Tuesday Weld. 


Alongside, Une balle offers a stellar supporting cast: the waggish Jean Rochefort as the Tip Tap’s bartender; Michel Lonsdale, as a dogged cop; and Paul Frankeur, the gang’s chilling puppet-master, Pépère. Frankeur was a welcome fixture in French noir, typically operating on one side of the law or the other. The beefy actor shared the screen with his friend Jean Gabin in more than a dozen films, and later with Lino Ventura in Jean-Pierre Melville’s elaborate thriller Le Deuxieme souffle (1966). Une balle also features the deserving American jazz pianist, Hazel Scott, as the nightclub's featured artiste (2).

Une balle dans la canon was the right project at the right time for Michel Deville. With its tangled, propulsive narrative, it was a perfect launch point from which to try and make a few waves of his own. The fact that the enfants terribles of the New Wave had the blood of his mentors on their hands couldn’t be avoided. Deville wasn’t about to end up as collateral damage by making a film for which he’d be skewered as un traditionaliste. Stylistically Une balle has a lot of nouveau going on, including the flamboyant use of hand-held cameras, extreme close-ups, jump cuts, extended tracking shots, and idiosyncratic editing. The film has a raw, graphic energy, and often within its frames, there are moments of drama independent of the story. Where there is occasional clumsiness, Deville never trips and hurts himself. He also avoids narrative clichés which can further cheapen made-for-nothing genre thrillers. Une balle is the kind of film whose minor-key B movie refrains are mostly foreign to French productions (not to mention international audiences who tend to assume that movies from France will be works of something rather than something that simply works). But then that’s the great conjuror’s trick, and not just present in B movies. Most classic cinema was created not by self-styled artistes but by extraordinarily gifted artisans and craftspersons as once might have labored on cathedrals.

Ironically, there’s a strong case to be made that Michel Deville, while not really of the New Wave, was the first director to put some of the formative thinking of its critical theorists into action. Deville’s precocious debut would be released the year before Claude Chabrol’s Le Beau Serge (1959), a film held up as the movement’s first born. By default, it can be argued that Une balle dans le canon also was the New Wave’s first nod to film noir, only to be followed later by Godard’s Breathless (‘60) and Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player (1960). Deville would succumb again to the noir impulse with Lucky Jo (1964), starring Eddie Constantine as a hapless thief whose partners no longer want to work with him. The movie, despite its fanciful mannerisms, remains a curiously effective film noir.

In time, Deville’s films would take on a yet darker hue as he began exploring postmodernist tropes: the relationship between memory and the past, the boundaries between reality and fiction, and the transitory nature of love and attachment. His movies also continued to engage provocatively with genre conventions. Dossier 51 (1978), a Kafkaesque police thriller, uses a subjective camera to create an aura of menace and paranoia (the film would win the French Syndicate of French Cinema Critics Award for Best Film as well as a César (French Oscar) for Best Screenplay). Others are assaults on bourgeois double standards and hypocrisy, more pointed than even those of even Chabrol. Among the films: Le Mouton enragé (‘74) starring Jean-Louis Trintignant and Romy Schneider; Eaux profondes (‘81) with Trintignant and Isabelle Huppert; and Péril en la demeure (‘85), an emotionally-layered thriller with Nicole Garcia, Richard Bohringer, and Michel Piccoli. These hand-signed noirs stand among the most popular and critically lauded of Deville’s films. Henri Decoin likely would have been proud of the accomplishments of his one-time assistant—and probably more than a little envious.

(1) Following the war, several French critics began assigning the term 'film noir' to American productions such as This Gun for Hire (1942), Laura (1944), and Phantom Lady (1944), movies unseen in France during the war. These films, with their dream-like states, gloomy romanticism, and transcendent male protagonists, were seen as reflective of French cinema’s surrealist and poetic-realist traditions; hence, the term’s extension to US titles, as later confirmed in Borde and Chaumeton’s A Panorama of American Film Noir 1941-1953. 

(2) Hazel Scott, an Afro-American beauty and jazz pianist extraordinaire, fled to France after her marriage to US Congressman Adam Clayton Powell had fallen apart and appearances before the House Un-American Activities had derailed her career in the US. With son in tow, she sailed for France, joining the burgeoning American expatriate community in Paris. Her apartment on the Right Bank became a regular hangout for Americans in Paris, such as James Baldwin, Lester Young, Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, and musicians from the Count Basie and Duke Ellington bands. Scott began to appear in films, landing a memorable part as a nightclub manager and performer in Le Désordre et la nuit with Jean Gabin. A virtuoso performer with an awesome dexterity and expressiveness, she recorded an album in 1955 with Charles Mingus and Max Roach titled ‘Relaxed Piano Moods’. Downbeat magazine declared it one of the most important jazz recordings of the twentieth century and in 2001, it was added to NPR’s Basic Jazz Records Library. Scott returned to the US in the late ‘60’s but the music scene had no place for her. She continued to play in smaller clubs to a devoted fan base until her death in 1981.



Wednesday, 26 January 2022

GIL BREWER, HUBERT CORNFIELD, AND THE LURE OF THE SWAMP (1957)

 


By Gary Deane

 "No, nobody knew, but I told him. As I watched while he sank into the quicksand, I told him, and was it sweet." 

Gil Brewer wrote intoxicating pulp and lots of it—hundreds of short stories and novels, bannered with heady titles like The Vengeful Virgin, Nude on Thin Ice, The Bitch, Backwoods Teaser, Appointment in Hell, and So Rich, So Dead. The sexually fraught tales of male lust, feminine wiles, and the seductive power of nothing left to lose are pure noir—though in Brewer’s world, noir’s fated Everyman gives way to a never-ending lineup of losers and lowlifes, suckers and stooges, and the easily-angered and ever-resentful.

Brewer began writing with hopes of becoming a mainstream novelist. But by the early 1950’s, he’d given up on getting noticed and joined the meaner world of paperback originals and second-tier men’s magazines—a pulp purgatory from which he’d never escape. By the 1970’s he’d fallen victim to changing times and tastes, along with his own disillusionment and descent into mental illness and addiction. In 1983, he died of alcohol poisoning.

The sexual mayhem, unrelenting despair, and breathless, headlong pace of nearly everything he’d write also left Brewer out in the cold as far as radio, television, and movies went. Not that he really cared. He was leery of them as they were of him. Still, two of his earlier paperbacks managed to get optioned. The first, The Brat, never got off the shelf. However, the other, Hell’s Our Destination, eventually found its way to the screen in 1957 under the title, The Lure of the Swamp. (Years later, renegade French director Jean-Pierre Mocky would adapt Brewer’s ‘A Killer is Loose’ (La machine à découdre, 1986) and 13 French Street (2007), based on two of his most popular Fawcett Gold Medal titles. American indie director Scott Ziehl also used Brewer’s 1954 novel ‘Wild to Possess’ as a starting point for his 2004’s Three Way. All three failed to do the books justice, especially the latter, a dreary erotic thriller which over-complicates what was already complicated enough, turning Brewer’s heady piece of Gold Medal trash into so much waste.)

Backing production of Lure of the Swamp was Regal Films, an independent studio which launched in 1948 with Pitfall, Andre de Toth’s iconic film noir starring Dick Powell and Lizabeth Scott. Among Regal’s directing hopefuls was Hubert Cornfield, son of Twentieth Century Fox Studios executive, Albert Cornfield. Born in Istanbul and raised in France, the younger Cornfield had developed friendships with members of France’s ‘New Wave’, including Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut, both of whom shared his enthusiasm for the American hard-boiled tradition in fiction and films. After graduating from college in the Eastern U.S., Cornfield headed to Hollywood where Billy Wilder, William Wyler, and Joseph L. Mankiewicz would sponsor his application for membership in the Directors Guild of America. Card in hand, Cornfield soon scored his first directing assignment, Sudden Danger (1955), the second of five police procedurals starring Bill Elliot as a Los Angeles police detective. Though the programmer was never meant to be anything more than a throwaway, Cornfield showed both a feel for the material and proficiency in running a set. The following year, he was assigned to direct The Lure of the Swamp.

An atmospheric, spectral film noir, Lure is set deep in the swamplands of southern Florida. Simon Lewt, a local outfitter (played by Marshall Thompson), is hired by James Lister (Willard Park), a tough-looking customer in a suit, who wants Simon to guide him through the waterways. However, once in, the man asks to go on alone. Later, Simon hears gunshots and goes looking for Lister, only to see him toss a suitcase overboard. Days after, Simon sees a newspaper story about a bank hold-up; also, a photo of Lister, the suspected robber, found dead in Miami. The money—nearly three hundred thousand dollars—'remains missing’. Simon then begins to get visitors: a beautiful femme called Cora Payne (Joan Vohs), who tells him she’s a magazine photographer on assignment; a suspicious-acting somebody named Steggins (Leo Gordon), asking about a man with a suitcase; and a roughneck introducing himself as Henry Bliss (Jack Elam) who tells Simon outright he’s looking for the cash and offers him a split. Simon refuses. But eventually thoughts of what the money might bring start to consume him—as does the big-city allure of the comely Cora.


In his first real test as a director, Cornfield gets big-name performances from his actors, especially Thompson, who earlier in his career had seldom been asked to be anything more than boyishly genial. The boy-next-door later would yield to conflicted, sometimes lethal protagonists in a number of serviceable B noir releases: Mystery Street (1950); Dial 1119 (1950); The Basketball Fix (1951); The Tall Target (1951); and Crashout (1955). Thompson hits his mark in Lure as the complacent-at-best, fatalistic-at-worst backwoods loner who suddenly finds himself deep in unknown territory. Simon’s girlfriend (Joan Lora), the daughter of the local storekeeper, works hard to keep him interested in both her and the prospect of a life together. He’s made it clear that he sees domestic life as just another dead-end. Cora, on the other hand, offers him the promise of everything he’s never had.

Joan Vohs, a Radio City Rockette at age 16, was an in-demand high-fashion model before taking the call from Hollywood. Voh’s career in film and television was intermittent and, in Lure’s early going, she’s uneven as a woman pretending to be someone she’s not. However, as Cora begins to tighten her grip on the woefully simple Simon, Vohs finds her rhythm as the duplicitous femme. Supporting tough-guys Jack Elam and Leo Gordon are each as scary as the other, with Gordon taking most of the movie to reveal who he is and what he’s about.

The Lure of the Swamp itself is a slow reveal which catches us off guard and works us over like a canny counterpuncher. Cornfield’s low-budget genre efforts still pack a powerful punch, recalling Noel Coward’s remark about the terminal potency of cheap music. It’s as easy to exhilarate in the treacherous languor of The Lure of the Swamp as it is in the heart-stopping suspense of Plunder Road (‘57), Edmond O’Brien’s feverish impersonation of a dead man in The Third Voice (‘60), or the unnerving jealousy of Mercedes McCambridge in Angel Baby (’61), Cornfield’s other equally restless noirs. All are sharply detailed, with the action and dialog edited with the skill of a gem cutter and with little or no music accompaniment needed to lift the pace.

Cornfield was among the more idiosyncratic studio filmmakers of post-war Hollywood. Andrew Sarris, in his taxonomy of American directors, found a slot for him under ‘Miscellany’, taking note of his “European sensibility”—holding true for The Lure of the Swamp, a movie that raises the concept of fate to existential proportions. At once tawdry and eerily elegant, The Lure of the Swamp both captures the lurid poetics of Gil Brewer’s book and shares the brutal determinism of Plunder Road and The Third Voice, movies in which felons fall to betraying each other—and destroy themselves in the doing.

However, too often and in too many ways, Cornfield proved to be his own worst enemy. He struggled in Hollywood, with few of his productions going smoothly—before, during, or after. In what was to become a familiar refrain, he accused the studio of sabotaging The Lure of the Swamp by cutting the print without telling him. He went to war with the producers and crew of Plunder Road during production and took to calling it ‘Blunder Road’. On his biggest assignment, Night of the Following Day (1968), conflicts between Cornfield and Marlon Brando (an actor he despised) got so out of hand that Cornfield had to leave the picture, with cast member Richard Boone stepping in to complete it.

Los Angeles film journalist F. X. Feeney said of his difficult but long-time friend, “Hubert could go from charming to belligerent in a heartbeat. He demanded one’s attention always with a child’s sense of entitlement. He fought with all his friends sooner or later always loudly and often over trifles…Such regal self-importance hurt his career when he was young and his Casanova recklessness when it came to sleeping with the wives and mistresses of backer and allies never helped”. Feeney goes on to say, “These were traits easy to forgive…he was so open, so honest, I couldn’t help but love the man.”

By the time Night of the Following Day came around, Cornfield was living in France, having retreated there in the mid-1960’s after his career in Hollywood had come to a halt. His only other output abroad would be limited to a single film, Les grands moyens aka Short and Sweet (1976) a noir-inflected crime comedy. When his marriage broke up in the late 1970’s, Cornfield returned to Los Angeles. Things worked out no better for him there. Unable to find a job in the industry, he worked as a house painter and lived and slept in his van amidst the paints and solvents. It’s thought it was this which caused the throat cancer that nearly killed him, though Cornfield bounced back after surgery as self-willed as ever. He led a largely solitary life but remained active: walking, skiing, working on scripts, and going to the movies, including special showings of Plunder Road and The Third Voice at which he would guest at the American Cinematheque’s Egyptian Theater in Hollywood. After Cornfield passed away in June of 2006, a tribute was held at the Cinematheque the following August. A year later, the Cinematheque Français in Paris would celebrate him with a special Un Hommage à Hubert Cornfield. Among the films screened was The Lure of the Swamp, a favorite of French audiences who looked upon Cornfield as an authentic American auteur.

Time has rewarded Hubert Cornfield, as it would Gil Brewer who’s since found critical validation as the writer which he believed himself to be—thanks to well-disposed publishers like Hard Case Crime and Stark House Press which have issued reprints of many of his books. Brewer, a high school dropout raised in poverty in Upstate New York, was a man who felt too deeply and cared too much. Yet Cornfield and Brewer, two of life’s most dissatisfied customers, shared similar creative artistic sensibilities and ambitions, each hungry to create something of true depth and meaning in popular works seething with raw emotion. In whatever heaven or hell awaited, the pair would have had lots to talk about.




 

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Thursday, 25 November 2021

JOHN IRELAND: FILM NOIR'S MAN APART

 By Gary Deane

"Likeable guy. And a very good actor. I'll miss him."   John Sturges on John Ireland's passing.




John Ireland and Robert Mitchum were destined to be best buds. Both were done with school at sixteen, both made their way to Hollywood through the back door, and together they lived it up like tomorrow was already gone. Never that drawn to Tinseltown’s la-di-da, the two hell-raising hipsters were mostly happy just hanging out with the hired help. Yet Ireland too-often found himself in the gaze of the public eye. Among his many fans were freshly-hatched starlets drawn to his rangy good looks and casual attentiveness. Natalie Wood, Sue Lyon, Barbara Payton, and wild child Tuesday Weld, who was sixteen when the 45-year-old actor began dating her, were some of his steadies. When pressed about the relationship with Weld, Ireland said, “If there wasn’t such a difference in our ages, I’d ask her to marry me. That and her mother are the only things that stop me.” Given Ireland’s watchful eyes and vulpine smile, it would be easy to think him dangerous—though he was known to be considerate of his friends, as well as those fans and admirers requesting autographs and photos.

However, Ireland’s indulgences would take their toll, personally and professionally. His first marriages were train wrecks—especially that to actress Joanne Dru, whom he met on the set of the western, Red River (’48). It didn’t take long for the lanky cowboy Romeo to rope Dru in. Meanwhile, director Howard Hawks was busy taking a hatchet to Ireland’s parts in the movie. Hawks said later, “I got tired of Ireland getting drunk every night, losing his gun, losing his hat, smoking marijuana…I just cut the hell out of his scenes and gave them to someone else.” Dru knew the score with Ireland, but married him anyway, only for the pair to later end up in separate hospital wards after what started as an argument ended as a brawl. Following their divorce, Dru—her bruises now faded—told reporters that she’d never marry another actor. Perhaps she just shouldn’t have married John Ireland.

Born in Vancouver, Canada, Ireland grew up in New York City and began his show business career as a professional swimmer. He discovered acting by chance, fell in love with it, and learned and developed his craft on stage from William Shakespeare. Which is likely why he sounds educated even when playing cheap crooks and guys up from the streets. In fact, just his voice is heard in three classic-period film noirs: Somewhere in the Night (1946), Repeat Performance (1947), and The Undercover Man (1949), movies in which he delivered uncredited voice-overs.

Ireland actually made his debut as a screen actor in Lewis Milestone’s dispassionate but moving A Walk in the Sun (1945) as a thoughtful, letter-writing G.I. With his Everyman’s looks and hard-boiled detachment, he’d play a wide range of soldiers, adventurers, and cowboys in over 200 movie and television appearances. Often brooding and inward-looking in performance, Ireland would be cast as characters good or bad—though he was just as well-equipped to play ones both good and bad. Whether a tormented villain or a hard-pressed hero, he was an actor purpose-built for film noir, in which he’d mostly end up being used as a threat, despite the flawed hero being well within his reach.

Roles in classic noir came early on, beginning with Behind Green Lights (1946), a fast-paced procedural starring William Gargan and Carole Landis. Next came Railroaded! (1947), the much-favored hard-boiled B title directed by Anthony Mann, with cinematography by John Alton. In what would become a signature role for him, Ireland stars as Duke Martin, a sadistic thug who spends time buffing his ammo with eau de cologne---that is when he’s not slapping around his girlfriend played by Jane Randolph in the grand tradition of boozy broads such as Claire Trevor’s Gaye Dawn (Key Largo,1948) or Gloria Grahame’s Debbie Marsh (The Big Heat, 1953). 

Soon after Railroaded! came The Gangster (1947), a feverish noir psychodrama starring Barry Sullivan as ‘Shubunka’, a washed-up mobster whose crime empire is crumbling around him due to his arrogance and apathy. However, his henchmen, including his gambling-addicted bookkeeper (Ireland), manage to hasten their boss’s fate—along with their own.  

By this time, Ireland’s career as a featured lead character player looked to be on track: a solid supporting role in the Roy Huggins-written I Love Trouble (1948), a hard-hitting Raymond Chandler knock-off starring Franchot Tone and Janet Blair; a lead in Open Secret (1948), a gripping, poor-man’s version of Crossfire; and a key supporting part in Raw Deal (1948), another emphatic Anthony Mann/ John Alton collaboration, starring Dennis O’Keefe, Claire Trevor, and Marsha Hunt. One of the era’s most violent noirs, Ireland features as ‘Fantail’, one of its most ruthless villains.

Later that year, Red River was released. Despite his part having been downsized, Ireland is memorable in several of the A feature’s most important sequences, including the confrontation between his character, Cherry Valance, and rival Matt Garth, played by Montgomery Clift. In a scene ripe with homoerotic innuendo, Cherry says, “That's a good-looking gun you were about to use back there. Can I see it? And you'd like to see mine. Nice, awful nice. You know, there are only two things more beautiful than a good gun. A Swiss watch or a woman from anywhere. You ever have a good Swiss watch?”




Other ‘adult’ Westerns would follow, including the noir-stained I Shot Jesse James (1949), a testament to its director Sam Fuller’s unbending conviction that the best movies are battlegrounds of love, hate, action, violence, and death. Ireland’s conflicted outlaw hero, Robert Ford is forced to choose between his feelings for Jesse James or those for a woman. Choosing wrongly, he ends up condemned to both the anguish of misplaced love and the infamy as James’ assassin. Ireland’s performance confirmed him as an actor to be reckoned with. 

Unfortunately, his next film that year, an aggravating mix of film noir and family comedy called Mr. Soft Touch (1949) starring Glenn Ford and Evelyn Keyes, relegated Ireland to a thankless part as a crusading reporter. However, a role in the great All the King’s Men (1949) soon would make up for it. Ireland shared top billing, this time as a more cynical scribe who goes from cautious admirer to fervent denouncer of a corrupt politico (Broderick Crawford) as he attempts to mount the steps of the Governor’s Mansion. But, while Ireland received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor, the acknowledgment failed to lead to better things.

The 1950’s began with the adventure drama Cargo to Capetown (1950), a strained attempt to cash in on the popularity of All the King’s Men, with Ireland and Crawford trading blows over the affections of a tramp steamer’s only female passenger (Ellen Drew). This was followed by a line-up of smaller B noirs, each better for Ireland’s being in them: The Scarf (1951), The Basketball Fix (1951), Hurricane Smith (1952), Security Risk (1954), The Steel Cage (1954), his self-directed The Fast and the Furious (1955), No Place to Land (1958), No Time to Kill (1959), and Faces in the Dark (1960). Then at least came a couple of solid supporting parts in Queen Bee (1955) with Joan Crawford, and Party Girl (1958) starring Cyd Charisse. His on-set liaison with Crawford at the time became front-page news, mainly because Crawford appeared so ready to talk about it.   

An ardent Anglophile, Ireland also went back and forth to England during these years, headlining as the ordained American in a quartet of worthier British noirs: The Good Die Young (1954), The Glass Tomb (1955), Black Tide (’58), and Return of a Stranger (1961); also, The Cheaters (1960-62), a realistic TV series about insurance fraud.

During the 1970’s and early ‘80’s, Ireland, like many Hollywood actors of the era (e.g. Charles Bronson, Jack Palance, Telly Savalas, Farley Granger, Joseph Cotton), was kept busy in Italy and Mexico, starring mostly in westerns and thrillers. Back in the States, there was some television work and the occasional meatier movie role still available to him. One standout was as an intractable cop, Nulty, in the remake of Raymond Chandler’s Farewell My Lovely (1975), which starred his buddy, Robert Mitchum. But by the late 1980’s, Ireland was desperate for what he called ‘real’ jobs. He took out a two-page ad in the Hollywood Reporter, saying only, “I’m an actor. Please…let me act. John Ireland.” The call-out paid off and he was able to find work for a few more years until health issues forced him to retire. He joined Mitchum and other movie colony friends in Montecito, an enclave near Santa Barbara, where for a time he owned a restaurant called ‘Ireland's'. In 1992, he died at the age of 78.

In the end, John Ireland, simply put, was who he was. Though he was serious about his craft and acting appeared to nourish his soul, he could sometimes be his own worst enemy and his career ended in frustration. But then as award-winning novelist and essayist Joan Didion once said of her own fallibilities, “Writing never made me a better person.” All that really matters though is that Ireland, by the fact of his charged inscrutability and unpredictability on screen, can easily be seen today as one of the most modern of film actors of his generation.




 

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Wednesday, 20 October 2021

JOHNNY COOL (1963)


Written by Gary Deane


“He calls himself, Johnny Cool… Everybody remembers him, but nobody knows him.”

In Dark City, there’s a Johnny on every corner—Johnny Allegro (1949), Johnny Angel (1945), Johnny Apollo (1940), Johnny Eager (1942), Johnny Guitar (1954), Johnny Gunman (1957), Johnny Nobody (1961), Johnny O'Clock (1947), Johnny One-Eye (1950), Johnny Rocco (1958), Johnny Staccato (1959-1960), Johnny Stool Pigeon (1949), Johnny on the Run (1953), Johnny on the Spot (1954), Johnny, You’re Wanted (1956). Some you want to know, some maybe you don’t. Johnny Gunman is a morose, dull-eyed loser and Johnny One-Eye turns out to be somebody’s pet pooch.

Johnny Cool (1963), on the other hand, is one you’d do well to look out for—a stylish and chilling post-noir that comes at the screen like a fist. In the film’s tragic opening sequence, a young Salvatore Giordano watches his mother murdered by a gang of Italian fascists. In a rage, the boy manages to pull the pin on a grenade hanging from one of the soldier’s belts, then flee. He picks a rifle up and cries, “The gun is now the only family I have!” as a partisan sniper kills the others.

Fast forward a few years. Mob boss Johnny Colini aka ‘Johnny Cool’ summons Salvatore (played by Henry Silva), now a hardened fighter. Colini (Marc Lawrence, in a bravura performance) is an aging Italian-American mobster now living in exile in Italy. He tells Salvatore that he wants him to extract vengeance on those responsible for his deportation: “You’ll do a job for me no other man could do. I want you to go to the men who betrayed me, take back what they stole, and make them dead.” Once Colini’s accounts have been settled, Salvatore becomes the new Johnny Cool and takes over the mafia kingpin’s criminal empire in the United States.

Salvatore had only ever battled for freedom and justice up to that point. He must, however, follow tradition and he boards a plane for New York. After taking a few days to get adjusted, Salvatore—now ‘Johnny’—heads to a local bar for a quiet drink but ends using his combat skills to take down a quarrelsome drunk. This attracts the attention of a beautiful-but-bored socialite, Darien Guinness (‘Dare’ to her pals), who seems to find males beating the snot out of each other arousing. Dare (a lascivious Elizabeth Montgomery) is recently-divorced and thinks Johnny looks like he might be just what she’s looking for. She says to him, “All men look like men but so few really are.” She asks, “What do you do?” Johnny replies, “I do my best.” and they leave together.

By this point, the syndicate has figured out who Johnny is and decides to send him a message. A couple of its soldiers are sent to ‘rough up’ Dare (a euphemism for sexual assault). When Johnny finds out, he swears, “The men who did this to you are now dead.” and takes his vengeance up-close-and-personal. He now has to move quickly to eliminate the mob bosses scattered across the U.S. and takes Dare with him. The gangsters–̶ played vigorously by Telly Savalas, Jim Bachus, John McGiver, Brad Dexter, and Mort Saul—are soon out of the picture. Johnny returns to New York while Dare, having had enough of the mayhem, goes to ground in Los Angeles, abandoning Johnny to whatever fate has in store for him.

Based on a novel, The Kingdom of Johnny Cool by John McPartland, and adapted by screenwriter Joe Landon (The Explosive Generation (1961), The Hoodlum Priest, (1960), Von Ryan’s Express (1965), Johnny Cool gave Henry Silva his first leading role. The intense, onyx-eyed actor, raised in Brooklyn by his Spanish mother, first came to Hollywood’s attention in 1955, after he’d starred alongside classmates Ben Gazarra, Shelley Winters, Harry Guardino, and Anthony Franciosa in an Actor’s Studio production of A Hatful of Rain. In 1957, he’d reprise his role as a cold-blooded dope dealer in the feature film version, directed by Fred Zinnemann.

Silva later was contacted by Frank Sinatra, who, liking everything he’d seen of him, asked the actor to be in Ocean’s 11 (1960), a jokey, vanity-fueled heist flick. (Silva would reunite with Sinatra in Sergeants 3 (1962), The Manchurian Candidate (1962), and again in Contract on Cherry Street (1977). As a result of his friendship with the ‘Chairman of the Board’, Silva had become a de facto member of Sinatra’s Rat Pack, which led to the offer to star in the role in Johnny Cool. Produced by Peter Lawford, the film also featured fellow Rat Packers Joey Bishop as a rambunctious used-car salesman and Sammy Davis Jr. as a hanger-on dubbed ‘Educated’ due to his skills at craps (Davis also performs a couple of songs, including the title number).


Unfortunately, neither The Manchurian Candidate nor Johnny Cool led to bigger things in Hollywood for Silva. In the mid ‘60’s the under-utilized actor moved to Europe where he soon established himself as a box-office favorite, headlining in a string of popular crime thrillers and poliziotteschi, movies which he elevated beyond their generic limitations. At the same time, he continued to take whatever roles he could get in the States, keeping the doors open for a full-time return to Hollywood a decade later. Once back, he continued to work in films and television until his final appearance in Steve Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven (2001), a passable remake of the ‘60’s classic.

Silva would come to the screen fully formed as the epitome of cool. Equal parts dead certainty and dead calm, he was always the kind of bad guy we want to survive even if we’re pretty sure he won’t. But Johnny’s no ordinary villain. Driven by moral both conviction and ancient codes of courage, he’s less an anti-hero than a tragic figure. To Johnny, Colini’s long-term economic interests and power grabs are unimportant; all that matters is the dutiful resolution of grievances no matter what the costs. Fearing for her safety, amid the violence that swirls around him, Johnny pushes Dare away. She says to him, “You can’t leave me. I’m nothing without you”. He responds, “We’re both nothing.” 

Whether asked to be, or by choice, Elizabeth Montgomery (daughter of actor Robert Montgomery) is as libidinous in Johnny Cool as she would ever be on screen. While the rest of Dare’s character and motivations remain underdeveloped, Montgomery’s both there and accounted as an unsuspected femme fatale and a sensual woman aroused. When she eventually dumps Adrian, her pompous ex-husband, she calls Johnny and tells him, “I need you! I need you now!

 

For those who know Montgomery only as Samantha from the comedy-fantasy television series, Bewitched (1964 -1972), a lot of this may come as a shock. However, Montgomery had been attracting admirers like moths to a flame since puberty and by the time Johnny Cool was released, she was at the height of her beauty and desirability. She’d also been through two divorces, the last from actor Gig Young just before the filming of Johnny Cool. It was during that time she met the movie’s director, William Asher, and not long after its completion, she and Asher were married. Montgomery had told him she was done with acting; however, he soon came up with the idea for Bewitched and the rest is sit-com history. Following, she would become the doyenne of TV movies-of-the-week, among them A Case of Rape (1974) which chronicles the ordeal of a middle-class housewife determined to bring her assailant to trial.

Asher was best known for his lighter-hearted television work, having directed hundreds of episodes of I Love Lucy, Our Miss Brooks, The Danny Thomas Show, The Donna Reed Show, and other showsThe opportunity to direct Johnny Cool also came about as a result of his close relationship with Frank Sinatra and Peter Lawford, the film’s producer, with whom he’d fly to Las Vegas for nights on the town, returning at the shoot at 5 a.m. the next morning. Asher was friend to many in Hollywood, and several feature in Johnny Cool, including Richard Anderson, Wanda Hendrix, Joseph Calleia, Elisha Cook Jr., and other built-to-last supporting players whose faces, if not names, are familiar. (Also in the mix is an uncredited Rodney Dangerfield as a testy, flap-jawed Las Vegas bus dr river.)

With Johnny Cool in the can, Asher then got to work on the first of his famous moment-in-time ‘beach party’ pictures, starring Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello. Big money-makers at the box office, these well suntan-oiled productions—Beach Party (1963), Muscle Beach Party (1964), Bikini Beach (1964), Beach Blanket Bingo (1965), and four others—gave Asher the greatest pleasure of his career. “The scripts were sheer nonsense, but they were fun and positive.” The films were happy illusions, the very opposite of his dismal upbringing. Asher, in fact, had probed some that territory in several downbeat domestic crime dramas, notably The Shadow on the Window (1957), a suspenseful child-in-distress noir starring Phil Carey, Corey Allen, and John Drew Barrymore.

                    


The director also had worked on TV’s Racket Squad (1951-52), Big Town (!952), and The Line-Up (1954). In 1956, the producers of Racket Squad went back and stitched together several of the grittier episodes and released them in theaters as Mobs, Inc.—anticipating a swell of unreconstructed mob and gangster movies later to follow, such as Baby Face Nelson (1957); The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond (1960); Murder Inc. (1960); The King of the Roaring ‘20’s: The Story of Arnold Rothstein (1961); Mad Dog Coll (1961); and Hail, Mafia (1965).

One of the most convincing of them is Johnny Cool, which dances on the edge of ugliness, its violence barely contained by the Production Code. The movie’s sharp-edged style, fueled by composer Billy May’s high-register jazz soundtrack and cinematographer Sam Leavitt’s expansive, hard-surfaced camerawork is strikingly modern. Leavitt came to Johnny Cool with an imposing resume, having worked on classic noirs The Thief (1952), The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), Crime in the Streets (1956), The Crimson Kimono (1959), and Cape Fear (1960). He’d also received an Oscar for Best Cinematography for The Defiant Ones (1958) and then nominations for Exodus (1960) and Advise and Consent (1962).

By his own admission, Leavitt was not the easiest person to work with and the trajectory of his career reflected the fact. He told Stuart Kaminsky in an interview for the writer’s 1974 book, Don Seigel, Director, “I don’t care who it is, the biggest director or producer, if I have something to say, I talk back to them. That’s why I don’t get many great pictures (anymore)”. If by “great pictures”, Leavitt was referring to Stanley Kramer’s plodding, sanctimonious Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), then that was his last grab at fame and fortune.

Meanwhile, to both his and William Asher's lasting credit is Johnny Cool[1], a cynical, final-gasp film noir overflowing with the pulp exigencies of life and death. As Colini warns the younger and wary Salvatore, “Now is sure, later is only maybe.” No Johnny-come-lately, Johnny Cool, in all its ferocity, is very much ‘now’.




[1] Also, William Conrad’s under-rated Brainstorm (1965) which had Leavitt behind the camera.

 


 

 

THE GREAT JEWEL ROBBER (1950)

By Gary Deane   Her: “You’ll have to be better than this, Gerry. I’ve seen bigger rings on a peppermint stick”. Him (lying): “That w...