Black Legion (1937)

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Dey Turk Ur Jerbs!

Today when the issue of immigration is brought up you will likely be shouted down as a racist by many factions. Since there are people who believe white supremacists (an increasingly meaningless buzzword) have actual influence today in the age of Trump, what does 1937’s Black Legion say on the issue of immigration and people who are without a doubt real white supremacists. Black Legion was inspired from true events from an organisation of the same name despite the film’s false opening disclaimer.

In Black Legion Humphrey Bogart plays the role of Frank Taylor, a family man who is a far cry from the likes of Rick Blaine or Phillip Marlowe. However Bogart being one of the most adaptable actors he never feels out of place in the part not to mention he actually had a boyish look to him in his early films before he became more rugged over the next few years. Bogart isn’t a tough guy here but rather someone who tries to act like a tough guy. This is exemplified in one of the film’s most memorable scenes in which Frank stands in front of a mirror while alone in the living room of his house with a gun in his hand and admiring the way he looks with it. He feels empowered by it and develops a false sense of security as he plays it tough to bolster his lack of confidence as rarely does Frank ever look totally comfortable within in the Black Legion itself.

Frank Taylor is drawn to racial hatred and later to joining the Black Legion after he loses a job promotion of factory foreman to Joe Dombrowski, a foreign born worker. Dombrowski is an interesting character. When the position of foreman opens up Joe states that he believes Frank will make a great foreman as he has been employed longer than any of the other employees. However it is Dombrowski who gets the job as he goes to night school, reads many books and is even studying how to design a lathe such as those used in the factory. Although his nationality or ethnicity is never mentioned, the name Dombrowski is Polish and Jewish in origin while the movie also subtly hints at the character being Jewish when his nose is referred to as “a plenty big one at that”. Likewise the comments later given by Ann Sheridan’s character in relation to the idea of the Dombrowski’s setting their own house aflame for an insurance payment in that they are “honourable people” and that “they wouldn’t do a thing like that” gives the impression that they are pillars of the community and that the locals do not look on at them as foreigners.

Essentially the factory in the film operated as a meritocracy and employed the best person for the job (“They will fill it the way they always have, move the best man up”); the essence of the American Dream – study hard and you will be rewarded. Frank however is a sore loser and instead of reflecting on himself and seeing where he went wrong he takes the weak minded route out. How would Frank have reacted if the job had been given to one of his American born co-workers?  He would not have been able to put the blame on “immigrants taking our jobs” so would he have come up with another lie in order to feel better about himself?

After Frank loses out on the promotion he comes across a charismatic radio presenter complaining about foreigners stealing American jobs and taking bread from American homes. Like this would have a hope in hell of appearing on any mainstream media today in what would now be referred to as “hate speech”. Likewise the scene in which Frank first attends a secret meeting held by the Black Legion in which a Hitler-esque speaker who overtly finger points gives a riveting yet at the same time ridiculous speech in which he speaks of ethnic nationalism and delves in conspiratorial nonsense on how foreigners “Now enriched with the jobs they have chiselled away from Americans and drunk with the power of their stolen prosperity, they are plotting to seize and control our government”.

With movies such as Black Legion and others from the mid to late 30’s you can’t help but ask would it be better if it were made before the code? Possibly the topic at hand would be presented in a less watered down manner. Look at a pre-code film such as Warner’s Five Star Final which had no problem with using a range of racial slurs whereas the only instance of this in Black Legion is the use of the word honyock. Likewise Black Legion does distinguish itself as an interesting beast of a film in that it feels like it is in between being a B picture and an A picture.

Interspersed between the main story is a love triangle subplot between Ann Sheridan, Helen Flint and Dick Foran. It’s largely a distraction from the main plot until it finally finds its relevance later on and is ultimately the lesser interesting portion of the film. Regardless Ann Sheridan provides some entertaining wise cracks plus Helen Flint plays a character called Mrs Danvers (no relation to the Rebecca character).

Does Black Legion hold much relevance for today? – To an extent yes. While much has changed since the 1930’s in today’s world of uncontrolled immigration, quotas and political correctness, there will always be groups of various political persuasions to pray on the weak minded.

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Dark Passage (1947)

The Man With Bogart’s Face

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Dark Passage is one of the more experimental movies of Hollywood’s golden age with majority of the film’s first third being filmed from the first person point of view of Humphrey Bogart’s character. I never thought a black & white movie from the 1940’s would remind me of a modern video game. I would like to see more films which experiment with this point of view style. MGM’s Lady In the Lake (also released in 1947) was filmed in POV for the entire film which the studio promoted by claiming the POV style was the most revolutionary style of film since the introduction of the talkies. Nope, it didn’t catch on. The use of POV took me of guard at first as I wanted to watch some Bogart but I did not get to see him on screen. Bogart’s distinctive voice alone though helps carry the picture, thanks in part to his many witty remarks. We’re then given a section of the movie in which Bogart doesn’t talk and is wrapped in bandages looking like a horror movie character (these scenes also make me squeamish). Considering we have to wait a whole hour until we finally see and hear Bogart in his entirely makes Dark Passage nothing short of a daring role.

For the plot you do need to suspend your disbelief at the number of highly improbable coincidences. Irene (Bacall) just happens to be out painting near San Quentin on the day Vincent Parry (Bogart), the man she has an obsession with escapes and she knows where to find him. Oh and she also happens to be friends with Madge (Agnes Moorehead) who gave false testimony in court against Parry that he murdered his wife.  I find it is easy however to just roll along with the ridiculous plot as the movie plays out like a dream, culminating in the satisfaction of seeing Bogart get his revenge on Agnes Moorehead (a useless old bag and real love to hate character) and seeing these two characters getting their happily ever after together in South America. One minor complaint I have is the reveal of Frank Parry’s face on the newspaper, prior to getting plastic surgery; because the character doesn’t actually have Bogart’s face, I would have preferred the mystery of not knowing what he looks like. Also, a plastic surgeon who can give you the face of Humphrey Bogart? Someone should have told Woody Allen that in Play It Again Sam. Dark Passage in part sees the return of gangster Bogart but still has the romantic elements of his on screen persona which he developed after achieving stardom. Right from the very beginning we’re in classic gangster territory, a prisoner escaping from San Quentin, the type of setting not seen in a Bogart film since High Sierra. The on location filming in San Francisco also really adds to the film, giving you a sense of the world the movie inhabits and Irene’s apartment with the two floors and the art deco designs – I want it!

I once said ‘All Through the Night’ was the most Hitchcockian film Bogart starred in but Dark Passage wouldn’t be far behind it. We get the innocent man falsely accused on the run while trying to prove his innocence. The focusing on landmarks (the Golden Gate Bridge), while the San Francisco setting has some Vertigo vibes. The trippy plastic surgery sequence feels reminiscent of the Salvador Dali dream sequence in Spellbound; while Madge’s death rings a bell of the character death shots in Vertigo in which someone falls from a great distance.

When attempting to review a movie, I can’t always predict how much I will have to say about it. Occasionally though you get movies like Dark Passage, which have layers and layers of fascinating details worth talking about. Dark passage is my favourite Bogart & Bacall film, although to be honest I was never a huge fan of their partnership. To Have and Have Not bored me and The Big Sleep was, well, a big sleep. Plus I never fully got the appeal of Lauren Bacall; she never struck me as a massively interesting screen presence.  I find Bacall plays a much more interesting character than in the previous two Bogie & Bacall pairings. Not a vamp but a lonely single woman who purses painting as a hobby.  During the first kiss between Bogart and Bacall I had the reaction of “Ok, now I’m getting it”.

They Drive By Night (1940)

We’ve Got a Great Big Convoy Running Through the Night!

They Drive By Night captures the seedy and often dangerous world of the truck driver; the lack of sleep, the long distances to travel, the time missed with family, the comradery between truckers. The movie definitely highlights the dangers of trucking from the risk of falling asleep at the wheel, which in part lends itself to one very thrilling action sequence. With Warner Bros being the master of social commentary pictures, I enjoy movies like this which give you an insight into the lives of the lower class at the time; people trying to get by a day at a time with clearly little money to spare.

Thirty minutes into the picture we meet Ida Lupino, in my view possibly the epitome of the tough dame. Talk about a star making performance, she owns the show as soon as she enters the picture. Every time she is in frame it’s hard to take your eyes of her as struts, poses and applies makeup to herself, even when her comedic foil of a husband Alan Hale is in frame acting like a buffoon. Her most notable scene in the film is one of the greatest, most gloriously over the top on screen breakdowns ever committed to film. Charles Manson blamed The Beatles, Ida Lupino blamed the doors. Seeing Bogart as a family man is odd at first, the total opposite of his persona he would have in films such as those with Lauren Bacall. But he fits comfortably into the role, showing how adaptable an actor he was. George Raft is the weakest player out of the four stars, I’ve never saw Raft as much of an actor, but playing alongside these heavyweights manages to bring out the best in him.

What is the overall plot of They Drive By Night? There isn’t one; there’s no three act structure. It’s almost like getting two movies for the price of one, with the first half focusing on trucking and the second half focusing on a murder. Comparing the two you wouldn’t think this is the same movie, but the odd combination works and makes for a unique viewing experience.

 

Sabrina (1954)

Isn’t It Romantic? ‘Fraid Not

Sabrina is a movie which has ‘me’ written all over it. A romantic comedy directed by Billy Wilder and starring Humphrey Bogart and Audrey Hepburn. I should be writing a review right now proclaiming my love for it, but unfortunately that’s not the case. Despite my best efforts, I can’t get emotionally engaged with this film. That was disappointing enough, although the thing which drove me crazy is that I couldn’t figure out why Sabrina doesn’t engage me despite being my cup of tea; a giant mug of tea with a chocolate digestive on the side.

I know many people comment on the issue of a young girl being involved in a relationship with a man old enough to be her father, but once you’ve seen enough classic Hollywood movies in which this is the case, then you get used to it. Sabrina’s love interest David Larrabee (William Holden) didn’t strike me as an interesting character initially, but on closer examination I think he does have some personality in how superficial he is, but I’m not convinced you would want to kill yourself over this guy. Also is his hair bleached in this film, it looks terrible.

On closer inspection, I believe the major flaw in Sabrina is that the title character is simply not interesting. I never caught onto this previously due to Audrey Hepburn’s natural lovable charm, but when thinking to myself about what are this character’s personality traits, a tumbleweed went by in my mind. Her transition from ugly duckling to glamour goddess is unconvincing; I imagine making Audrey Hepburn appear unattractive is impossible, but her appearance when she returns from Paris compared to her earlier self is largely the same aside from her just wearing more classy attire. Due to this the scene in which David meets Sabrina for the first time after returning from Paris and he doesn’t recognise her is hard to digest. Compare this to the 1995 remake (which yes I think is a much better film), it gives the character of Sabrina an in depth personality, a character transition which is more substantial and stronger chemistry between the leading lady and her two male co stars, but that is for another review.

Bogart’s role is the only character in the triangle who I find has any character development, playing against type as a sympathetic businessman. I find Sabrina isn’t without its moments, such as William Holden getting glass up his…you know. Was this word commonly known in 1954? Did 1950’s movie goers get the joke? Sabrina is more ordinary than Wilder’s other movies, and I feel it could have been directed by anyone. I assume Wilder wanting to directed something lighter for a change, not that there’s anything wrong with that, however this is his only movie from the 1950’s which I don’t like. I guess you can’t win ‘em all.

The Petrified Forest (1936)

The Boulevard of Broken Dreams

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

When I first watched The Petrified Forest I was at an unsure time in my life, fearful of the future and with my own sense of individualism and artistic ambitions. Watching Leslie Howard as Alan Squier as failed artist who eventually takes his own life so a young girl could be the artist he never was, made me fearful and depressed of what my own future held in store for me. I felt for this character to the point that it hurt because I was worried that someday I could become that character, perhaps not to that extreme but destined to a similar fate. Gabrielle (Bette Davis) Is a character is stuck in a rut and dreams of going to France. At the time when I watched this film and I was dealing with the uncertainty of if I would ever leave my hometown or would I always be stuck here. Few other films have ever had characters which spoke so directly to me.

The Petrified Forest’s most notable contribution to cinema is the breakthrough role of Humphrey Bogart. Bogart was never more terrifying than the role of Duke Mantee. I generally don’t think of Bogart as an actor who is scary, but here he is a guy I would not want to be stuck in an elevator with. Just like the characters in the film, Bogart’s acting career had been marred with failure up until this point. This likely being his final chance to make it in Hollywood no doubt must have fueled his performance. I know a film is good when I have to think and contemplate which actor (Howard of Bogart) gave the better performance. How often do you get to see gangsters and intellectuals involved in such profound conversations? Howard and Bogart play characters who are worlds apart yet develop a mutual respect for each other as they discover they share a bond with their individualism. Also look out for Bogart’s head being framed over a moose head so it looks like he has antlers though out the film. Fascinating characters (all with such unique dynamics between each other) in a fascinating story is already one of the most important things I could ask for from a movie, even better when they affect me on a personal level.

 

The Harder They Fall (1956)

Bogart’s Swansong Packs a Punch

Watching Humphrey Bogart’s final film is interesting on a number of levels. From the Saul Bass inspired opening credits to the jazzy music score, it’s unique to see Bogart in a more contemporary 1950’s film. I imagine if he lived longer and stared in movies for at least a few more years they would have been in a similar vein aesthetically to The Harder They Fall. In a period in which opening credits where becoming more interdict, the movie uses them to set up the plot; as soon as they’re over we are right into the heart of the story.

The film features a generational clash between Bogart and Rod Steiger; Bogart being of the old theatrical style of acting while Steiger being of the modern method style of acting. However I’ve always found Bogart to be an adaptable actor and he seamlessly blends into these unfamiliar surroundings. Bogart’s role as Eddie Willis is one of the most interesting heroic performances of his career, a character dealing with his moral and ethical conscience throughout the film. He may take part in the corruption game but he never fully believes in what is doing and tries to make it as unscrupulous as possible. Likewise Rod Steiger portrays corrupt sports promoter Nick Benko, a villain who believes his actions are justified. A villain who isn’t evil for the sake of it but throughout the film I get the sense he actually believes in what he’s doing. Steiger hams it up from time to time but in a good way.

The Harder They Fall deals with corruption in boxing and how promoters exploit athletes regardless of their health or well being while also celebrating the power of writing as a force to fight wrong and enforce positive social change, proving once again the pen is mightier than the sword, or should I say boxing glove. I’d be hard pressed to find a film which presents a more in depth look at corruption in boxing. It’s an informative experience into who pulls the strings and how. The fight scene themselves look like the real deal, no speed up footage or obviously faked punches. Likewise the grime and sweatiness of boxing arenas and training gyms never fail as effective subjects to capture on film, especially in black and white. Also what’s the deal with that bus with the cardboard cut outs attached to it? It’s almost like a character in itself.

I had sense of melancholy during the movie’s closing shots knowing this was the last time Bogart appeared on screen. Bogart was in poor health during the film’s production, suffering from lung cancer (although ironically it doesn’t stop him from lighting up during the movie), but thankfully doesn’t affect his ability to deliver a great performance. The Harder They Fall proves to be a worthy conclusion to in my opinion, one of the most impressive careers every held by any actor in the history of cinema.

 

Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)

Angels With Filthy Souls

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

 

One of the things I love most about Angels with Dirty Faces is that proposes the age old idea of a person’s entire destiny being defined by one single event. The fact that Jerry (Pat O’Brien) could run faster than his childhood friend Rocky (James Cagney) while being chased by the police for a petty crime would determine the paths they would take in life. If only Rocky could climb over that fence, things would have been so much different.

I’m a huge fan of the Warner Bros gangster movies of the 1930’s and Angels with Dirty Faces is probably the most classic of these movies In that it gets referenced and spoofed most in popular culture. These films deal with social issues, many of which are still relevant today. When I hear current news stories about crime and social issues, I often find myself thinking “They dealt with that in an old 30’s crime/gangster film”. Angels with Dirty Faces is no exception. Rocky Sullivan was never truly a criminal but his stay at a reformatory for his petty crime turned him into one. However Pat O’Brien’s role of Father Jerry Connolly presents an incredibly stark contrast with today’s common place media reports of priests molesting boys. I find it fascinating to see a movie in which a member of clergy is presented as someone who is treated with the utmost respect and entirely trustworthy, of course this being an attempt to appease the Legion of Decency.

Even with the religious overtones, the movie still provides one of the most intriguing moral dilemmas ever presented in a movie; Rocky making the ultimate sacrifice. Before his execution Father Connolly asks him to pretend going yellow and show people he was a coward by begging for mercy before being sent to the chair. The only thing Rocky has left is his reputation and he is being asked to throw that away so kids won’t look up to him and his lifestyle. Rocky does just this at the last moment, a complete rejection of the gangster way of life.

While nothing can top the pure electricity that is Cagey in White Heat, Angels With Dirty Faces gets my spot as the next most interesting performance in his career. The Dead End Kids give Cagney an element to his performance few other actors would rarely get the chance to express, likewise his real life friendship with Pat O’Brien is easily apparent on screen with their interactions. Humphrey Bogart also appears in a pre stardom supporting role. Despite only appearing in several scenes he nearly succeeds in upstages Cagney with his enigmatic screen presence. Plus that kid playing a young Cagney at the beginning of the film is very eerily like him.

Socially conscience pictures such as this which came from Warner Bros really give an insight into the lives of common folk of the time. A moment which always stuck out to me in Angels With Dirty Faces is the basketball game because it’s the only classic era film which comes to mind which features a basketball game thus showing an activity from the 1930’s which is still popular today. Likewise the movie also acts as a historical document for the lingo among inner city youths of the time. The performances given by The Dead End Kids feels like an early example of method acting; no surprise when watching this that it was once referred to as Italian street acting.

Michael Curtiz is undoubtedly one of the greatest craftsmen of Hollywood’s golden age (after all, in this same year he directed one of the most perfect things ever created, The Adventures of Robin Hood). The movie immediately flaunts it’s very handsome production values right from the opening shot. The execution finale of Angels with Dirty Faces alone is a masterpiece of cinematography with its prominent use of shadows, bright lighting and titled camera angles. Here Curtiz creates a criminal underworld which is hard not to get sucked into. We might not want to emulate gangsters but we can’t help but be fascinated by them.

All Through the Night (1941)

A Mixture of Action Und Comedy

Bogart: Let’s Get Silly!

Mixing up so many genres into a single movie could potentially be a disaster yet I’ve perhaps never seen a better genre mash up than All Through the Night. I’m astounded at this movie’s ability to have a bit of everything and pull it off so immaculately; bouncing back and forth between drama, comedy, action, murder mystery and even film noir. All Through the Night is the closest thing to a Hitchcock movie starring Humphrey Bogart in which an ordinary man gets caught up in espionage and becomes a fugitive for a crime he didn’t commit with moments in the film such as the auction scene or Bogart deliberately getting arrested by police directly reminded me of North by Northwest; likewise the movie even stars Judith Anderson in the Mrs. Danvers hairstyle from Rebecca while Bogart’s exploits against the movie’s Nazi villains gives an urban Indiana Jones edge to the film. Even the movie’s final climatic moment had me on the edge of my seat and thinking to myself “how is he going to get out of this?!”. One top of that the film gets an additional boast with some truly superb use of shadows and lighting; All Through the Night really exemplifies the unique look of Warner Bros. movies of the 30’s and 40’s.

I may sound hyperbolic but the more I think about it, the role of Golves Donahue may be the greatest performance of Bogart’s career; why you ask, versatility! Just like the tone of the film he is able to continually bounce back between being serious to just downright silly. Bogart has made me laugh during comedic moments in his other movies but I never knew he could make me laugh this side split-tingly hard; from subtle moments such as throwing the reserved sign off a table in a nightclub to the more obvious in which he infiltrates and stalls a secret Nazi meeting. At another point he delivers the line “More here than meets the FBI”; I do love me a corny pun but with Bogart delivering it just makes it funnier. All Through the Night makes me wish he had starred in more comedies.

On top of all that, the character he plays is a momma’s boy yet he’s still badass! I find this aspect of his character is hilarious in itself. There’s something adorable about a tough guy who wears dotted bathrobes and loves cheesecake so much; exemplified even more with his mother being played by the ever motherly Jane Darwell. All Through the Night features a large selection of character actors at some of their best work and even features a young Jackie Gleason in one of his earliest film roles; what more secrets does this movie hold? If I was to find any point of contention with All Through the Night I wouldn’t have minded seeing a bit romance between Bogart and Kaaren Verne, but with a film that has this much merit it’s hard to complain.

All Through the Night is an anti-Nazi propaganda film and an effective one at that. I find the satire here is on par with The Great Dictator and To Be or Not Be as the movie pokes fun at Nazi ideology. The leader of the branch of Nazi spies is played Conrad Veidt whom there was probably no one better at the time to play evil Nazis. Golves Donahue is also a minor gangster which reflects the attitude of real life gangsters of the time who worked with the government to infiltrate Nazi spies. One scene in the film involves Bogart giving a chilling monologue on how the Nazis will take people’s freedoms away in an argument against US isolationism in the ongoing war in Europe; all this however without even mentioning the word Nazi once throughout the film. Another interesting aspect of the film is the mentioning of an actual concentration camp Dachu. Being released in 1941 before the true nature of the camps where discovered, this is one moment I found quite chilling. All Through the Night was released in the US only 5 days before the attack on Pearl Harbor, although Warner Bros. had already long established themselves as an anti-Nazi studio.

By the time I watched All Through the Night I had already seen all of Bogart’s major movies and figured I was largely finished exploring the actor’s filmography, thus it came as such a delight discovering this obscure gem which satisfied me more than many of his more famous movies. This is type of movie which makes me want to scream out, “Why the hell it this not more will known?!”, but then again its moments like these in which I live to be a cinephile.

 

The African Queen (1951)

Steamboat Bogie

The African Queen is one of those perfect, anti-boring, instantly emotional engaging films that you never want to end. I never want Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn to leave that tiny broken down old boat in an African rain forest. The African Queen is the film I measure all “man and woman who hate each other at the start but gradually fall in love” movies against. With the power of these actors the transition comes of completely organically without a contrivance in sight. Bogart gets the opportunity to get out his usual urban dwellings and into the African jungle, showing how he was one of the most adaptable actors in cinema. The scene in which he goofs around with his intimation of various animals is surely the silliest moment of his career, but it’s all good fun. Even with as scruffy as he appears, he still acts the gentleman, although I do have to ask am I the only one who gets some Bugs Bunny vibes with his performance here?

Katharine Hepburn’s Rose is one tough dame, and does seem like a very unlikable character during the first portion of the film, not treating Charlie with any respect because he won’t agree with her demands and interfering with what ain’t her property! But she’s Kate, she can do whatever she wants and get away with it, and we still love her for it, or at least that’s the case with me. Although Fanboying aside, Katharine Hepburn’s on screen personality seems to turn many off as I’ve discovered;. you’re likely ether indifferent to her or not. I do wonder if Hepburn herself, an atheist had any reservations about playing a missionary in Africa converting the local natives to Christianity, or imposing their faith on any cultures as I see it.

Jack Cardiff’s Technicolor cinematography has such striking vibrancy, a style distinctive from Hollywood Technicolor and one which captures Bogart and Hepburn’s rough, beat up faces in such detail. Along with the sound effects of nature in the background and the occasional bit of wildlife, The African Queen gets as close as a movie can get to making me feel like I’m a river boat in East Africa. The African Queen was one of my earliest exposures to classic cinema, eons before these movies took over my life, although I only saw the remaining 40 minutes. However it stuck with me, particularly the scene in they start getting eaten by insects; that scene always gives me the heebie jeebies. It’s one of those rare films which feels like a different (but equally brilliant) film on every viewing.