Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Tuesday’s Overlooked Film: Call Northside 777

“Call Northside 777” from 1948 was one of the early docu-noir crime films made after World War 2 and filmed on location, something new for Hollywood at that time. It was directed by Henry Hathaway, who was no stranger to working on location having made many westerns, and who had also done several docu-noirs including: “The House on 92nd Street,” “13 Rue Madeleine,” and “Kiss of Death.”

In “Call Northside 777,” James Stewart plays a reporter on a Chicago newspaper who responds to an unusual classified ad offering $5,000 to anyone with information about the killing of a police officer a decade earlier. Stewart’s reporter discovers that a scrub woman named Tillie Wiecek, played by a wonderful actress named Kasia Orzazewski, placed the ad in an attempt to gather new evidence to free her son, Frank.

Frank Wiecek, played by Richard Conte, who turns in a strong, sympathetic performance, is serving a life sentence for the murder. The reporter is skeptical at first, but as he digs into the facts of the case and uncovers lying witnesses and possible police corruption, he changes his mind and goes full out to prove Frank’s innocence.

“Call Northside 777,” which was based on a true story, was mostly filmed on location in Chicago, capturing scenes on city streets that have either changed beyond recognition or no longer exist.

On a recent trip to Chicago, my destination in the Near North Side was close to one of the locations in “Call Northside 777.”

The Holy Trinity Church, on Noble Street, near the intersection of Milwaukee Avenue and Division Street, stood at the head of the street on which Tillie Wiecek lived in the film.

Today, Tillie’s street is gone as are the old houses that ran east toward what looked like a gas tank. New brick apartments were built across from the church replacing the houses and the shop on the corner where Jimmy Stewart caught a taxi cab. The street was removed and a pedestrian square is now in its place along with many new trees.

Where Tillie’s house was located in the movie is now a ramp to the Kennedy Expressway. The church is still there and appears well kept with its original Polish name written above the pillars: KOSCIOL SWIETEJ TROJCY.

In a quiet neighborhood just west of the stadium where the Chicago White Sox play baseball, is another location used in the film. When Stewart’s character searches for an elusive witness, he enters a corner bar which appears to be at the corner of Halstead Avenue and 37th Street.

In the film, a bar across the street with a beer sign that says Nectar can be seen out the window. It had a rounded brick entry and looks like one of Chicago’s oldest taverns, Schaller’s Pump. Next to the bar was a brewery which had many names over the years, but at that time was called Ambrosia. Today, the brewery building is gone, but Schaller’s remains. The corner tavern Stewart went into is now an office.

(For more on the locations used for this film, see the Forgotten Chicago Forum where people have done a lot of research.)

A glimpse at Chicago’s immigrant neighborhoods of the past is an added bonus for today’s viewers of the film. Another plus on the DVD is the commentary track by Alain Silver and James Ursini, the authors of several books on film noir. But the main attraction of “Call Northside 777” is the film itself, which, despite some pretty old technology – from the reporter’s manual typewriter to an early lie detector test – still holds up as a solid detective story.

 (For more overlooked films, check out Todd Mason's site.)

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Tuesday’s Overlooked Film: The Bastard

Italian crime films of the 1960s and 1970s are a guilty pleasure of mine. They were generally cheap, fast and violent, often oddly plotted and at times incoherent. Euro Crime or “poliziotteschi” films, as they are sometimes called, were a hot genre that Italian producers got into when Spaghetti Westerns cooled down.

“The Bastard” from 1968, is either an early example of this genre, or a modernized reworking of the Spaghetti Western. Set in the American southwest, it is the story of two criminal brothers, played by Giuliano Gemma and Klaus Kinski, their boozy mother, played by Rita Hayworth (yes, that Rita Hayworth), and an attractive femme fatale, Margaret Lee, and a good girl played by former Miss France and Bond girl Claudine Auger.

Gemma’s character robs a jewelry store, makes off with a bag of gems, guns down half a dozen rival bad guys who want the loot, and is then ripped off, maimed, and left to die in the desert by his own brother. He is found and nursed back to health by ranch owner Auger. To show his appreciation to her, he steals $200 and her car and goes after his brother for revenge. Before he can reach Kinski, an earthquake strikes and the film ends with bloodshed in the rubble.

Writer-Director Duccio Tessari keeps the whole thing moving at a rapid pace. But, most of the actors either overplay their parts or shuffle through scenes like zombies. The usually energetic Kinski, is cool and restrained. Rita Hayworth, on the other hand, chews up the scenery. Gemma, who got his big break in movies from Tessari and who made several films with the director, including, “A Pistol for Ringo,” (a Spaghetti Western liked by Quentin Tarantino), does a pretty good job making his way through this movie which seems to have been written on a series of cocktail napkins, some of which got lost.

Fans of poliziotteschi films will like “The Bastard,” choppy editing, poor dubbing and all. Others may find it interesting that this film was at the beginning of the transition from Italian-made westerns to crime films. Shot in New Mexico, the bad guys zoom around the hot rocky desert in big, wide American cars rather than speeding through the streets of Rome, Naples or Milan in tiny Italian cars.

“The Bastard” (the original title was “I bastardi,” and for an obscure reason the video is called “The Cats") may not be for everyone, but those who like Italian genre films might enjoy this movie. I know I did.

(For more overlooked movies, TV and videos, head over to Todd Mason’s site.)

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Tuesday’s Overlooked Film: Ride the Pink Horse

“Ride the Pink Horse” is hardly an overlooked film. Many mystery, crime and noir fans know the 1947 movie. But what may be overlooked is the work of director Robert Montgomery who also starred in the picture.

Robert Montgomery came to movies around 1929, landed featured parts in a variety of films from the prison drama “The Big House” to “Here Comes Mr. Jordan,” and many light comedies. In 1937, he starred in the suspense film, “Night Must Fall,” which would foreshadow some of the darker films he would do later in his career.

He served in the U.S. Navy during World War 2 and right after the war, starred in the excellent John Ford film “They Were Expendable,” playing the skipper of PT Boat in the Philippines.

The following year, he directed his first film, “Lady in the Lake,” from the Raymond Chandler novel. (The film was released in January, 1947.) Montgomery also starred himself in that movie, but was hardly seen on screen because of his stylish technique of using the camera as the point of view of his character, detective Philip Marlow. Montgomery was only glimpsed when he passed a mirror or a shop window. The gimmick still amuses viewers. But within the gimmick was another style Montgomery used in his next picture, “Ride the Pink Horse.” That style was the use of long scenes, unbroken by cuts. Other than Orson Welles and John Farrow, I cannot think of another director from that time who used as many extended takes. (Perhaps someone can fill in my film-history gaps.)

“Ride the Pink Horse,” adapted from the novel by Dorothy B. Hughes, is the story of Gagin, a bitter war vet who travels by bus to a town in New Mexico to catch up with a racketeer, Hugo, played by Fred Clark, who had a friend of Gagin’s killed. Gagin has a piece of evidence that could send Hugo to a federal penitentiary and he plans to squeeze Hugo by making him pay hard cash for it. But Gagin is followed by a federal agent, Retz, played by a gray haired, Southern-drawling Art Smith, who is the conscience of the film. Retz wants Gagin’s evidence to put Hugo away.

Gagin is befriended by Pancho, played by the great character actor Thomas Gomez, who operates a children’s merry-go-round in a poor section of town. Pancho not only looks after Gagin who is now chased by both the feds and Hugo’s hoods, but also takes a beating from the hoods.

Director Montgomery handles the violence by implying it rather than displaying it. His own character takes a savage beating in which he is also shot and wounded. But Montgomery shows only the aftermath in which Gagin is so dizzy, disoriented and weakened that a teenage American-Indian girl, Pila, played by Wanda Hendrix, has to nearly carry him to the safety of Pancho’s. The small, innocent, superstitious girl is another self-appointed protector of Gagin and a second conscience of the movie. At the merry-go-round, Pancho hides Gagin and takes a beating to save him. Again, Montgomery implies the violence, playing it off the reactions of the horrified children who are stuck on Pancho’s whirling ride. These scenes of violence are still effective today.

Even more intriguing than the unsavory characters and the violence was Montgomery’s use of very long takes. When Gagin arrives in town, he goes from the bus, into the station, up to some coin-operated lockers, where he stores the evidence, and then to the waiting room where he hides the locker key, all in one take. Later, Gagin meets Hugo in a night club, has words with the racketeer, then moves onto the dance floor with Hugo’s conniving mistress, played by Andrea King, and then over to a side door to have a private chat with the woman, all in one take. The movie has many extended dialogue scenes done in long takes, often filmed from behind Montgomery, as if allowing the audience to witness the scene from Gagin’s point of view.

“Ride the Pink Horse,” with a screenplay by Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer, and produced by Joan Harrison, one of the few women producers in old Hollywood, is a stylish, well crafted film, and worth a look. And Robert Montgomery, although he directed only five films in his career, should not be overlooked.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Overlooked Film: The List of Adrian Messenger

This review goes out with thanks to Yvette who mentioned “The List of Adrian Messenger” in a post last week on her excellent site, In So Many Words. I commented that I saw the film long ago and did not remember much about it except the disguises and deceptions.

In thinking about the 1963 film, I realized I had not seen it since watching it on TV as a kid with my family in the living room of our old house.

A quick search turned up a very good video of the entire movie on YouTube. If anyone has not seen “The List of Adrian Messenger,” please take a look. If anyone has seen it and wants to view it again, move fast. Films like this are often taken down as quickly as they appear.

“The List of Adrian Messenger” is a John Huston film based on a Philip MacDonald novel and starring George C. Scott.

Scott is terrific, as usual, this time playing a retired British intelligence officer who is asked by a friend, Adrian Messenger, to check into the whereabouts of a group of men. The friend does not say much more about his list of names and soon cannot say another word as he is murdered by someone who is killing off everyone on the list.

The killer is seen from the beginning of the picture, but only in the disguises he uses. His identity and his reasons for knocking off these men is the mystery Scott’s character sets out to discover.

To say any more about the intricate plot would ruin the fun for anyone who has not seen the movie.

For George C. Scott, this film was his first starring role. His previous film roles were in supporting parts in “Anatomy of a Murder” and “The Hustler.” He had also appeared in many TV dramas. With this film, Scott got a chance to show he had the chops to carry a major movie. And carry it, he does. Scott dominates every scene he is in with his personal power and that fast, sharp, distinctive speech pattern and gravelly voice. He also brings an intensity and danger to this highly polished film.

“The List of Adrian Messenger” is filled with wonderful supporting players, including: Dana Wynter, Herbert Marshall, Clive Brook, Gladys Cooper, and Marcel Dalio.

In the opening credits, names of some of the biggest movie stars of the time float across the screen, but these actors are not seen in the film. Or are they? Huston, in keeping with the theme of disguises, disguised Tony Curtis, Robert Mitchum, Frank Sinatra, and Burt Lancaster so well, that only in the final moments of the movie does he reveal which parts they played. Well, at least three will be revealed. One will be quite obvious.

“The List of Adrian Messenger” is a highly enjoyable feature.

Finally, when the video started I recognized the cool, intriguing theme music by Jerry Goldsmith. As it turns out, I remembered more of this movie than I thought. So, I suppose everything we see and hear is stored away somewhere. And if we cannot immediately access it, there is always YouTube.

(For more links to movies and television, check out Todd Mason’s Sweet Freedom.)