Category Archives: Classics

You Can’t Get Away with Murder (1939, Lewis Seiler)

The You in You Can’t Get Away With Murder refers to Billy Halop, nineteen year-old punk kid who doesn’t respect what sister Gale Page sacrifices for him and instead runs around with neighborhood tough Humphrey Bogart. They knock over gas stations, they play pool, it’s a good life… at least until things go wrong during a hold-up—with Bogart’s not billed victim using what looks like (but sadly can’t be) a Krav Maga disarm on him, forcing Bogart to use the gun he took off Halop instead of his regular piece. Only Halop got his gun from sister Page’s boyfriend’s apartment. Harvey Stephens is the boyfriend, some kind of reserve cop or security guard. It gets established by the car Stephens is driving in the first or second scene… I wasn’t paying attention. I thought he was a cabbie.

As Halop and Bogart get pinched for a different hold-up, the cops gossip about Stephens’s getting arrested for the murder Halop knows Bogart committed. End first act, let’s go second.

Bogart and Halop are in Sing Sing for five year sentences—the film, which looks like an A picture from time to time, usually thanks to Sol Polito’s gorgeous photography and Bogart’s phenomenally slimy performance, has a great introduction to Sing Sing with a tour boat introducing it. Things are fine enough, save Harold Huber trying to convince Bogart to dump Halop and make Huber his number one pal, which eventually becomes important but never to character development. There isn’t any character development in Murder. It’s important because after Stephens gets sent to the prison’s death house and Halop starts feeling pangs of guilt at not telling the truth, Huber’s able to poison an increasingly suspicious Bogart against his buddy.

It does help Bogart loses Halop to the prison library, where kindly, aged inmate librarian Henry Travers works toward rehabilitating the lad best he can without ever being able to say the word, “Jesus.” Having Travers get to lay in with religious indoctrination instead of just vague “you won’t be able to live with yourself if you don’t tell the truth” business probably wouldn’t improve Murder, but it might give Travers something to chew on in his performance. What he’s got is pretty thin; three screenwriters—Robert Buckner, Don Ryan, Kenneth Gamet—and they can’t come up with good monologues. I do wonder if one of them came up with the train car in the middle of the prison yard for the breakout standoff, or if it was a group effort.

Because once Page realizes Halop knows something, she tries to get him to save Murphy too, which Halop resents. Maybe if Murder went a different way—i.e. not into prison—it’d be able to get through with Halop, but he’s never good. Like… just… no. He’s never good. Sometimes when he’s doing his fidgeting stuff it seems like it could lead to something good—if he weren’t talking in bad Jimmy Cagney impressions—but he never breaks from the exaggerated deliveries. Bogart’s able to amp it up, quiet it down like none other. He’s awesome. No one else is even close. I mean, Huber and Travers are only good about thirty percent of the time, which isn’t a lot given their importance.

Page is fine. She’s got nothing to do but moon over Stephens, who’s eh (you can see why Halop doesn’t like him), and fret over Halop.

If the movie didn’t treat him like a racist caricature, Eddie 'Rochester' Anderson would win for actor you most like to see onscreen. But the movie cranks the racism from about a two (for 1939) to about a six, which is way too much. Wasting Anderson’s voice is bad enough.

And George E. Stone isn’t good as the main prison gossip, who’s always around to advance the plot. He’s ineffectual. Against Halop, which is incredible.

Even if Halop were good, even if Seiler didn’t get weird with almost all the close-ups—the medium shots are fine, the close-ups are intentionally but pointlessly askew—the script would still be blah. Even with Bogart being great… well, there are better movies to see Bogart doing the same thing in.

That Polito photography is fantastic though. Especially at the end.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Lewis Seiler; screenplay by Robert Buckner, Don Ryan, and Kenneth Gamet, based on a play by Lewis E. Lawes and Jonathan Finn; director of photography, Sol Polito; edited by James Gibbon; music by Heinz Roemheld; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Billy Halop (Johnnie Stone), Humphrey Bogart (Frank Wilson), Gale Page (Madge Stone), Harvey Stephens (Fred Burke), Henry Travers (Pop), Harold Huber (Scappa), Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson (Sam), and George E. Stone (Toad), Joe Sawyer (Red), Joe Downing (Smitty), and John Litel (Attorney Carey).


It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955, Robert Gordon)

I finished watching It Came from Beneath the Sea, which I regret, particularly because the whole reason I didn’t shut it down was for the big special effects finale, when the giant radioactive octopus finally attacks a city. Incidentally, it’s San Francisco, which doesn’t turn out to be anywhere near as cool looking as I had hoped.

The film dashes hopes early on, so when you’re sitting through the second act slog, you know there’s no good reason to be doing it, just that expectation the grand finale is going to be worth it. Ray Harryhausen’s special effects work is, after all, objectively stellar.

Sadly, not much of that quality is on display in Beneath. When we finally get to the giant octopus making landfall and giant tentacling the city… the detail’s not good. Because Beneath is way too cheap. It’s been way too cheap and you can kind of get yourself enthused by convincing yourself the cheap for the human science thriller is so there’s enough money for the finish and then… turns out no. It’s just too cheap.

Too cheap, too poorly directed, too poorly written, too poorly acted. And whoever did the light matching on rear screen projection—photographer Henry Freulich, whoever—might be so bad they’re incompetent at it. There’s no reason it should always look so bad, especially when there’s so much of it. There’s a particularly bad scene with the heroes in a beachfront restaurant where you have to remind yourself to pretend the background is supposed to represent something real to the characters.

Of course… maybe if the acting weren’t terrible. So I guess let’s get into how the acting, directing, and writing all congeal into a toxic slop.

From the first scene—well, actually earlier because the opening text crawl is poorly written and then the narration is not a good choice—but from the first live action scene, it’s clear Beneath is going to have some major acting and directing issues. What isn’t clear, from that first scene, is how bad Kenneth Tobey is going to get; he plays a submarine commander who comes across the giant octopus but doesn’t know what it is. Chuck Griffiths is his XO. Griffiths gives such a terrible performance you can’t see anything else. Time stops for Griffiths’s awfulness. It’s incredible.

Somehow, even though it’s not obvious Tobey’s going to be bad, Gordon’s direction is clearly at fault for some of Griffiths. Because Gordon’s directs all the other actors on the submarine terribly as well. Lots of quite bad acting from a variety of actors, which is going to all change when Tobey gets back to the Nazy and off the ship.

Because then it’s going to be creepy sexual innuendo with Tobey and two scientists working on a lab to discover what he found out at sea. Presumably through tissue tests but the science is never explained because George Worthing Yates and Harold Jacob Smith’s script is dumb.

It’s also extraordinarily sexist. Like, unpacking everything up with Beneath and its single woman—marine biologist Faith Domergue (doing a dinner theatre Marilyn Monroe impression)—would deserve thorough scholarly research if the movie weren’t just a fifties monster movie.

So in the lab it’s Tobey, Domergue, and Donald Curtis. Curtis and Domergue are not hooking up but Tobey thinks they’re hooking up because if he were Curtis, he’d be hooking up with Domergue. Domergue doesn’t seem to have considered hooking up with Curtis, but then starts to make bedroom eyes at him… after having an extremely suggestive clutch with Tobey out of sight from Curtis.

During this scene, while Tobey explains he wants to hook up and fast, Domergue picks up graduated cylinder and strokes it with her hand the rest of the scene.

Later we find out Domergue’s from a “whole new breed of woman,” they think they’re just as smart and just as brave as the men, which is why Domergue doesn’t know consent is bad—Tobey tells her Navy men take, don’t ask—and if she enjoys a kiss, she has to marry that guy.

I can’t remember if that scene is before or after the Navy sends Domergue into debrief a sailor who has seen the giant octopus and she has to seduce him to do it.

I think after.

So, yeah, It Came from Beneath the Sea is a shit show of misogyny, sexism, and male gaze (Tobey and Domergue are also apparently into each other because they’re exhibitionists; while waiting for Curtis to show up later in the movie they’ve been From Here to Eternitying it on the beach with a local cop hanging around nearby). It’s also a bad movie, with bad direction, bad acting (Curtis is somehow worse than Domergue, who’s somehow worse than Tobey, even though she’s his victim), bad writing, and not worth the wait special effects.

There are like two good effects shots in the movie. But it seems like it’s because they didn’t have money to let Harryhausen do a grander finale. The eventual shots of the octopus on land, tentacles going through the streets, are the good ones. They’re just aren’t good enough to make up for the rest. It’d be impossible to make up for the rest. Because the rest isn’t just bad, it’s icky. And bad.

Icky bad.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Gordon; screenplay by George Worthing Yates and Harold Jacob Smith, based on a story by Worthing Yates; director of photography, Henry Freulich; edited by Jerome Thoms; produced by Charles H. Schneer; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Kenneth Tobey (Cmdr. Pete Mathews), Faith Domergue (Prof. Lesley Joyce), Donald Curtis (Dr. John Carter), and Chuck Griffiths (Lt. Griff, USN).


The Princess Comes Across (1936, William K. Howard)

The Princess Comes Across is an uneven mix of comedy and mystery. Too much mystery, too little comedy, noticeable lack of romance. The romance is an awkward afterthought in Walter DeLeon, Francis Martin, Don Hartman, and Frank Butler’s script (four screenwriters is probably too much even in 1936; definitely for this kind of picture), which is weird since it’s the initial setup.

The film takes place on a passenger liner going from England to the United States. Starts with the passengers boarding, ends with them getting off. The script’s very hands off with the trip. When band leader Fred MacMurray says he and the band aren’t just rehearsing (in his room, which ought to be a comic bit but isn’t because the film’s never inventive, in script or direction), but getting ready to play for the ship, you wonder why it was never mentioned before. It’s not even clear the rest of the band’s onboard until that moment. Not for sure; you could assume it, but you could also not, it wouldn’t matter for how the film played. Princess is creatively sparse; its logic is fine (even, possibly, with the romance stuff), but the film never seems to be enjoying itself.

Maybe because MacMurray and top-billed Carole Lombard never get to be funny together. They get their not really cute cute meeting. MacMurray and sidekick William Frawley, who was already bald in 1936, booked the royal suite and are getting booted because Swedish princess Lombard is on board. MacMurray’s initially a jerk about it, then gets a look at Lombard and immediately changes his tune. So while Lombard and attendant Alison Skipworth (who gives the film’s most entertaining performance by far) try to get situated, MacMurray keeps annoying them. And it’s not cute. Especially since MacMurray plays more off Skipworth than Lombard; there’s a reason for it, as the punchline reveals, but… it could’ve been done better. Director Howard doesn’t seem to know how to showcase Lombard even when she’s not running a scene. Ted Tetzlaff’s photography doesn’t help. Tetzlaff’s lighting a thriller and even when Princess is full-on mystery, it’s never a thriller. It’s not just too much mystery in a comedy, it’s also way too light of mystery in a comedy.

The film sets up the mystery not to kick off a suspense thriller, but some kind of screwball gag. There are five police detectives onboard, all from different countries, headed to a conference. The captain (a somewhat underused George Barbier) complains about them in exposition, which seems like it’s going to lead somewhere with ex-con MacMurray or secretive royal Lombard, but instead has the five detectives chasing a stowaway Bradley Page. Sure, Page’s a convicted multiple murderer on the lamb but… even when the detectives are talking about dire outcomes, it’s all light. Howard’s just can’t bring any gravitas.

Maybe because all five detectives are basically played as comic relief. The straightest edge is Tetsu Komai as the Japanese detective but only because the movie’s othering him to create suspicion. Douglass Dumbrille’s the French guy; he’s a bit stuck-up but all right. Lumsden Hare’s the British one. He’s not memorable even though he’s got a lot to do third act. But Sig Ruman (as the German) and Mischa Auer (as the Russian)? They’re awesome. It’s like, Ruman and Auer make it seem like Princess knows what its got possibility-wise so it can’t possibly waste it.

Then it wastes all the possibility.

Notice I haven’t mentioned top-billed Lombard and MacMurray in a while? It’s because all they end up doing is reacting to the mystery with Page. And then scuz blackmailer Porter Hall bothering MacMurray and trying to get a pay-off, which ends up involving Lombard too because they’re cabins are next to each other… Sure, Lombard and MacMurray don’t really have story arcs of their own (he’s a successful band leader, she’s about to be successful as a movie star, they don’t get anything else but… vague ambition); they just react when the mystery spills over to their screen time.

They’re both fine. Absolutely no heavy lifting for either. They do have fun in the far too infrequent wordplay scenes. Frawley’s fine. He gets a beret arc, which is more than Lombard or MacMurray get. And more than Skipworth, who doesn’t even get a beret. Again, she’s awesome. Hall’s great too. Ruman, Auer. The cast is good, the film just doesn’t have anything for them to do.

Princess is cute. Ish.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by William K. Howard; screenplay by Walter DeLeon, Francis Martin, Don Hartman, and Frank Butlerz, based on a story by Philip MacDonald and a novel by Louis Lucien Rogger; director of photography, Ted Tetzlaff; edited by Paul Weatherwax; costume designer, Travis Banton; produced by Arthur Hornblow Jr.; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Carole Lombard (Princess Olga), Fred MacMurray (King Mantell), Alison Skipworth (Lady Gertrude), William Frawley (Benton), Porter Hall (Darcy), Douglass Dumbrille (Lorel), Lumsden Hare (Cragg), Sig Ruman (Steindorf), Mischa Auer (Morevitch), Bradley Page (Merko), Tetsu Komai (Kawati), and George Barbier (Captain Nicholls).



Niagara (1953, Henry Hathaway)

Niagara has some noir-ish elements to it—femme fatale wife Marilyn Monroe stepping out on war veteran husband Joseph Cotten—but it’s not about the darkness, it’s about the light. And its location shooting. Niagara takes full advantage of the falls, not just for scenery but for multiple story elements (we find out Monroe’s stepping out because she heads to the falls to meet up with her much younger, prettier, and presumably not PTSD-suffering lover, Richard Allan). Director Hathaway and cinematographer Joseph MacDonald basically do an exceptionally good commercial for the possibilities of Technicolor (and location shooting). Hathaway and MacDonald show it can do noir, it can do suspense, it can do action, it can do drama, it can ogle Monroe. The first act of the film, in addition to introducing the cast and setup, is all about ogling Monroe. Sometimes as a plot point—when Monroe’s turning heads—other times just because. The film also comes up with a really creative way for her to get to do a song, like they want to remind everyone she sings too.

The film opens with Cotten stumbling back to their motel in the early morning, narrating about existence. There’s no further narration in the film and it just sets up Cotten’s character for when he disappears for a spell to introduce the film’s protagonist, Jean Peters, which happens after he gets home to Monroe and passes out. The film’s got a fantastic screenplay (from producer Charles Brackett, Walter Resich, and Richard L. Breen), both in terms of plotting and dialogue. Everything contributes to the character development and the reveals until it’s time for the action finale to take over. Great action finale. Oh, and also the obvious but Code acceptable sexuality of the characters.

Anyway, Peters and her husband Max Showalter are on a delayed honeymoon. Showalter works for a breakfast cereal company in marketing and is all about climbing the corporate ladder. Showalter’s annoying as hell and not very good, which almost doesn’t matter as part of the film hinges on him dismissing Peters’s concerns about neighbors Cotten and Monroe (to the point he stops cop Denis O’Dea from interviewing Peters about something important because Showalter’s done hearing about it); unfortunately he never learns from the experience of the film’s events, presumably consigning Peters to living under his dimwitted wanna-be alpha male nonsense for the rest of her life. If Showalter were good or the part was self-aware, Niagara might be a lot better.

But it’s still really good. Peters is a great protagonist, even if she’s rarely the lead—after Monroe’s introduction at the beginning, things shift to Peters and Showalter, then back to Cotten, then Monroe, then Cotten, then Monroe. The third act is a little more even but it’s so action-packed, there’s not much for Peters to do. She shows empathy for Cotten in the first act, getting involved in he and Monroe’s unhealthy—but not initially clear how unhealthy—relationship so even though she’s the protagonist, it’s all about her perspective on them. As for her and Showalter and their delayed honeymoon, outside him being a dipshit in general, he doesn’t show any interest in anything until he gets to suck up to a local Shredded Wheat vice president, a perfectly obnoxious Don Wilson. Wilson and wife Lurene Tuttle are another of Niagara’s small successes, both in terms of writing and performance. They’re great accessories for Peters and Showalter as Peters comes to understand the thriller she’s found herself in.

Lots of gorgeous filmmaking. Hathaway’s got a great feel for the locations, both the town and the falls; he, MacDonald, editor Barbara McLean, and composer Sol Kaplan do fantastic work. McLean’s cutting gets more impressive than the still wondrous photography in the second half, as the thriller aspect replaces the Monroe ogling.

Monroe’s really good, Peters is really good, Cotten’s real, real good. They more than make up for Showalter being, at best, wishy-washy. O’Dea’s fine as the cop. Allan’s effective as the beefcake boy toy. Russell Collins is the motel owner and he’s very distinctive. He’s fine—he doesn’t have much to do—but Hathaway treats him like there’s always something more to his story. It provides some nice texture.

Niagara only runs ninety minutes and every one of them is effectively used. It’s a very substantial ninety minutes. The only thing wrong in it is Showalter, for multiple reasons, but the film successfully works around him (at one point it feels like everyone’s just ignoring him). It’s an excellent showcase for its leads, the filmmakers, and the Technicolor process.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Henry Hathaway; written by Charles Brackett, Walter Reisch, and Richard L. Breen; director of photography, Joseph MacDonald; edited by Barbara McLean; music by Sol Kaplan; costume designer, Dorothy Jeakins; produced by Brackett; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Marilyn Monroe (Rose Loomis), Joseph Cotten (George Loomis), Jean Peters (Polly Cutler), Max Showalter (Ray Cutler), Denis O’Dea (Inspector Starkey), Richard Allan (Patrick), Don Wilson (Mr. J.C. Kettering), Lurene Tuttle (Mrs. Kettering), and Russell Collins (Mr. Qua).