Saturday, July 25, 2015

Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No! – Oh Hell Why Not?

Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No! (2015) Starring Ian Ziering, Tara Reid, Cassie Scerbo, Mark McGrath, David Hasselhoff, Bo Derek, Ryan Newman, and Jack Griffo. Directed by Anthony C. Ferrante. Teleplay by Thunder Levin. Produced by David Michael Latt Run Time: 120 minutes. Color. U.S. Science Fiction, Horror, Comedy

While this blog usually stays away from television shows, we have made a few exceptions, one of which has been the Sharknado series of “films”: Sharknado (2013), Sharknado 2: TheSecond One (2014) and Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No! all brought to us by the SyFy channel. The old adage, it’s so bad it’s funny, surely comes to mind when watching these films. Throw everything you know about science out the window, along with that rational part of your brain and sit back and watch the gory and downright stupid plot, which revolves solely around the idea that tremendous tornadoes pick up sharks out of the ocean and throw them at human beings like chainsaws.

Sharknado took place in Los Angeles, with sharks not only flying through the air, but also swimming up the streets and Sharknado 2 took place in New York City, our third installment takes place in Washington D.C. and in Orlando at the Universal Studios Park there. (Disney World is apparently safe.) The action, which is as dumb as ever is literally taken to new heights, including a launch of the now non-existent Space Shuttle, and yes, we do end up with Sharks in Space!!!

Back to the fray are not only are Ian Ziering (Finley Allen "Fin" Shepard) and Tara Reid (April Dawn Wexler Shepard) who are making their third appearances in the franchise, but also Cassie Scerbo returns after skipping 2 as Nova Clarke. The rest of the class is made up of has-beens, wannabes and those who seek the limelight whenever possible: Frankie Muniz as Lucas Stevens, Bo Derek as May Wexler, Ann Coulter as Vice President of the United States, Mark Cuban as President of the United States and finally David Hasselhoff as Gilbert Grayson "Gil" Shepard. If you like your acting wooden, then this would be your dream cast.

They say we get the government we derserve. Meet the President and
Vice-President of the U.S. in Sharknado 3. What have we done wrong to deserve this pair?

The movie has non-stop action from the get go; Fin is running, but instead of fighting swirling sharks, he’s in D.C. to receive a Presidential medal. You have to wait all of five minutes though before the sharks start flying as the entire East coast of the United States is under threat of Sharknadoes cropping up. The combination of sharks and high speed winds wreck havoc on Washington D.C. not only thinning the herd of non-important characters, but also decimating most of the monuments and government buildings. But it’s all in the name of camp and so no harm no foul.

There is a little bit of everything in this film for the Sharknado fan. Not only are there flying hammerheads and tiger sharks, but chainsaws are prevalent and even get an upgrade to lightsaber-like when the action moves into space. Cheesecake and beefcake also get equal play as after a plane crash, Fin emerges shirtless and Nova is inexplicably down to her bra and panties. For both it is some of their finest acting.

With a reported budget of $1 million, it is easy to see that all of it ended up on the little screen. With production values akin to making a movie with an iPhone, Sharknado 3 is really a glorified product of corporate synergy. Not only does a lot of the action take place at a ComCast owned theme park, but it also includes some of the company’s most high profile employees, the cast of NBC’s Today show. Mercifully, this time it appears that everyone is eaten alive by sharks, so they probably won’t pop up in the already promised Sharknado 4.

In addition to corporate synergy there are also Sharknado flavored commercials for the advertisers calling back to recent victims in the plot. It sometimes feels Sharknado is paid programming pushing Infinity wireless. Oddly enough, a guy being swallowed up to his legs by a shark on a roller coaster isn’t necessarily someone I want to emulate, even if he has good cell phone coverage.

Despite being equally goofy and gory, the Sharknado movies have become a sort of a seasonal rite of passage. They are one of the few TV shows that seem to bring people together to revel in the stupidity. Far from great TV fare, Sharknado 3: Oh Hello No!, is a not to be missed Hell Yes! It wouldn’t be summer without it.

Stubs - The Hitch-Hiker

The Hitch-Hiker (1953) Starring: Frank Lovejoy, Edmond O’Brien, William Talman. Directed by Ida Lupino. Screenplay by Ida Lupino, Collier Young. Produced by Collier Young. Run Time: 71 minutes. U.S. Black and White Film Noir, Drama, Crime

The Hollywood career of Ida Lupino has many distinctions.The one we're interested here is that Lupino is only one woman who ever directed a classic film noir and the only film noir she directed was The Hitch-Hiker (1953). While she is not the first woman to direct films, she is the first actress to write, produce and direct her own movies in an effort to have a better control over her career.

Actress, writer, producer, director Ida Lupino.

Born in London, her first appearance was in the British film The Love Race (1931). She made British films for Warner Bros. before moving to Hollywood in 1933, for the lead in that year’s Alice in Wonderland. She began to be taken seriously as a dramatic actress after her role in Columbia’s The Light That Failed (1939). With improved roles, she described herself as “the poor man’s Bette Davis” after picking up roles Davis turned down.

One of her big breaks came in They Drive By Night (1940), which led to a contract at Warner Bros. She would appear opposite her They Drive By Night co-star Humphrey Bogart in High Sierra (1940) and opposite the great Edward G. Robinson in The Sea Wolf (1941). But her tenure at Warners was mostly spent on suspension, as she refused roles that she deemed beneath her dignity as an actress, including Kings Row (1942) opposite future President Ronald Reagan.

Her directorial debut was mostly by accident. Lupino and her second husband, Collier Young, set up their own company, The Filmakers, to produce movies for her. When director Elmer Clifton suffered a mild heart attack and could not finish Not Wanted, a film she was co-producing with Young, Lupino took over and even though she didn’t take screen credit, it marked her first time in the director’s chair. She would direct several more films before The Hitch-Hiker four years later.

For this film, she and Young chose a real story to adapt, that of Billy Cook, a murderer who travelled the interstates and highways of the southwest, hitch-hiking and killing those who were nice enough to give him a ride. In 1950, Cook killed a family of five and a travelling salesman before kidnapping a Deputy Sheriff Home Waldrip from Blythe, California. Before Cook was put to death for his crimes, Lupino spoke with him and got his permission to use his story. She also spoke with two of Cook’s victims, prospectors he had held hostage and got releases from them as well.

Filming began on June 24, 1952 and finished late in July. Shot on location near Big Pine and Lone Pine California, terrain that substituted for Mexico’s Baja peninsula, the film was released through RKO Pictures, in March 1953.

The film opens with the warning: “This is the true story of a man and a gun and a car. The gun belonged to the man. The car might have been yours--or that young couple across the aisle. What you will see in the next seventy minutes could have happened to you. For the facts are actual."

As if to accentuate the danger, the film opens with the robbery and murder of a pair of Oregon newlyweds by a hitchhiker. Even after the police release a photograph of their prime suspect, Emmett Myers (William Talman), a travelling salesman is shown giving him a ride and paying the price with his life. Myers steals the man’s car as well as his wallet and drives until the car gives out.

Newspaper headlines warn about the dangerous hitch-hiker.

Enter two Arizona men, Gilbert Bowen (Frank Lovejoy), a draughtsman, and his best friend, Roy Collins (Edmond O’Brien), the owner of a garage. Away from their wives and family, the two are on a guys’ only fishing vacation, heading to their favorite spot in Mexico’s Baja California peninsula. They pass through Mexicali, a touristy town. Roy tries to wake Gilbert, but can’t so he continues on driving. Not stopping might have put them on a collision course with Myers, who is standing by the side of the road.

Without thinking, Roy pulls over and offers a stranded motorist a ride. Once in the backseat, Myers wastes little time in taking control of the situation, pulling a gun on the two men in front. He admits to being who he is and forces them to pull over to the side of the road. He makes them open the trunk to see what's in there and confiscates Gilbert's rifle and ammunition, before ordering them back onto the highway.
Soon after they give him a ride, Myers (William Talman) pulls a gun
 on Gilbert (Frank Lovejoy) and Roy (Edmond O'Brien) and hijacks their car.

Myers demands to know when their wives are expecting them home and to keep him quiet Roy responds that they are not due back anytime soon.

When they have to stop for gas, Gilbert converses with the attendant in Spanish, which Myers does not understand. Nervous that Gilbert might talk too much, Myers flashes his gun. They obtain a map and at the next stop, they study the map. Myers decides to catch the ferry in Santa Rosalia, a coastal town on the eastern shore of the peninsula, 500 miles away.

He then shows off his skills with a rifle and then forces Gilbert into shooting a tin can that Roy is holding. Gilbert manages to fire and hit the can, but both friends are left shaken by the experience.

Roy is forced to be a human target holder.

On the radio, there is a report about Myers which indicates the police do not know of his whereabouts. That night, the three men camp and Myers warns the men not to attempt an escape. He tells them that one of his eyelids doesn’t close, even when he’s asleep and as such they could never be sure if he was asleep or not. (The real Cook had told Lupino he had the same affliction.) The men don’t try to get away.

The next morning, the men drive into a small down to buy provisions. Once again, Myers is nervous about Gilbert speaking Spanish to the proprietor, something the store keep picks up on.

Later, while they eat lunch, Myers brags to his captives about his toughness and refers to them as being “soft”. The radio broadcasts a news report about Gilbert and Roy’s disappearance. When they’re alone, Gilbert and Roy talk about making an escape attempt. They discuss wanting to keep Myers from listening to the radio. Roy manages to break the horn and when they pull over, Myers watches, to be sure Roy kills the horn and not the radio. While Roy is working under the hood, a man walking a burro walks by, which bothers Myers.

A man walking a burro happens by while Roy is working on the car.

Even under Myers’ scrutiny, Roy does manage to disconnect the radio, a feat that gets him a blow to the head, even while he’s driving, from Myers when he realizes what he’d done. Gilbert tries to convince Myers that the surrounding hills are interfering with the radio broadcasts, and that seems to calm Myers down.

Meanwhile, in a Baja police station, a Mexican official is working with an American agent discuss information they’ve received about the hostages from the store proprietor. They agree that Santa Rosalia is Myer’s most likely destination.

Working together, U.S. and Mexican officials figure out where Myers is headed.

Back on the highway, the trio’s car gets a flat. When a couple passes by, the man driving offers to help, but Myers is adamant that Gilbert and Roy to keep quiet, which makes the man suspicious. Soon afterwards, the man tells Captain Alvarado (José Torvay), who is tracking Myers, and tells him about the suspicious men. He directs Alvarado to the spot where he’d seen the men.

Witnesses tell Captain Alvarado (Jose Torvay) what they've seen on the road.

That night, Myers forces Gilbert and Roy to steal gasoline for the car from a closed gas station. While he’s hand pumping the gas, Gilbert slips off his wedding finger and leaves it next to the pump. The next day, while Alvarado is investigating the robbery, he finds the ring.

Figuring that Myers has the men as hostages, the authorities decide to disseminate false information about Myer’s whereabouts over the radio.

The next night, when the three men set up camp, Gilbert and Roy finally make an attempt to escape, but Myers is too quick for them and catches them before they’ve gotten far.

The next day, Myers takes the men to an abandoned mine shaft and is considering pushing the men in when he hears one of the false reports on the radio about where the police think Myers is. Convinced he doesn’t have to kill them, Myers spares their lives. But they aren’t going anywhere, since the car’s crank shaft has been broken.

Undeterred, Myers forces Gilbert and Roy to walk the rest of the way to Santa Rosalia. He also forces Roy to change clothes with him, so that Roy better fits the description the radio is broadcasting about Myers.

When their car breaks down, Myers forces them to walk the rest of the way to Santa Rosalia.

When Santa Rosalia is finally in sight, Myers insists that they stop on the outskirts rather than in the town, where he is sure the police are already waiting for him. Perhaps, as a good-bye gesture, Myers offers to buy his hostages a beer. But his mood sours when he finds out that the ferry has burned down some time back.

Myers buys his captives a beer before learning the ferry boat has burned down.

They find an English-speaking man who can help them arrange for a boat that evening. But soon after they depart, the man recognizes Myers' face from a wanted poster and notifies the police.

When they arrive on the docks that night, Myers makes Roy walk out ahead of him, hoping the police will take him for the man they’re after. And the police are there, including Alvarado. There is brief gunfire and Roy finally fights back, challenging Myers for the gun. In the struggle, the weapon falls into the water. Stripped of his gun, Myers is forced to give up.

Once Myers is handcuffed, Roy lands a few punches on his former-captor before the police pull them apart. As they lead Myers away, Alvarado tells the two Americans that he will need a full report in the morning.

Given the fact that the film was directed by a woman, there are no significant female parts in the film. The only one is a woman seated in the car that passes while Roy is changing the tire on the car and she never says a word. This is only one interesting twist on the standard film noir. Not only is there no femme fatale in sight, rather than the confines of the city, The Hitch-Hiker takes place mostly outdoors against the bleak backdrop of the desert under the big sky, proving there is more to the dark mood than just environment.

Another interesting twist is that whenever someone speaks Spanish in the film, there is no attempt to translate what they’re saying leaving the audience in the same situation as Roy and Myers unless they understand the language. While the meaning can be interpreted through placement, being kept a little in the dark by the film brings a certain realism to the story.

That sense of realism may be responsible for the change in the perception of hitch-hikers after its release. Gone were the days of the innocent nomads of the highways, replaced by potential killers with every ride. The film’s advertising which contained such lines as: "Have you ever picked up a hitch-hiker--We guarantee you won't ever after seeing this picture”, didn’t help. Hitch-hikers complained to RKO, trying to stop the film, but to no avail.

As a director, Lupino is dependent on telling her story using mostly only three actors: Frank Lovejoy, Edmond O’Brien and William Talman. Since he plays the antagonist, we’ll start with Talman. Like most villains he’s presented as pretty much a one-dimensional character. Angry with the world for whatever reason, Myers is a mean man with no redeeming qualities. Talman, who is best remembered for his role as Los Angeles District Attorney Hamilton Burger on the long-running Perry Mason TV series (1957-66). It was actually his role as Myers in this film that would lead to that role when Gail Patrick Jackson, executive producer of the CBS-TV series, wanted him for the Burger role.

Edmond O’Brien, who tends to act somewhere between wooden and ham, is mostly subdued in his reading of Roy Collins. Mostly submissive throughout, Roy is the weaker of the two men. He is part of the reason why Roy and Gilbert fail in their attempted escape. He seems to take most of Myers abuse and really only fights back at the end. O’Brien, who was no stranger to film noir, having starred in The Killers (1946), Backfire (1950), D.O.A. (1950) and Shield for Murder (1954), would actually win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role in Barefoot Contessa (1954) opposite Humphrey Bogart and Ava Gardner.

Frank Lovejoy was a versatile actor, appearing on radio, film and on television during a short career that only lasted fourteen years. Of the three main actors, I found Lovejoy to be the most dynamic, at least in this film. His character is not only our best link into the story, but within the film, he is the link between Roy and Myers and the non-English speaking populace they interact with.

Even though this is Lupino’s lone entry in the film noir genre, it is clear that she knows what she’s doing on both sides of the camera. Not only was she a memorable actress, but she knew how to bring out the most from a rather straightforward story. Unlike most other film noirs, this film’s plot is uncluttered by twists and turns so she has to wring the most tension she can out of each situation.

Not a perfect film nor a typical noir, The Hitch-Hiker is still worth watching. It is a shame that this was Lupino’s lone attempt at the genre.

Be sure to check out our Film Noir Review Hub for reviews of other films in this genre.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Ant-Man - The Littlest Marvel Film That Could

Ant-Man (2015) Starring Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Corey Stoll, Bobby Cannavale, Michael Peña, Tip "T.I." Harris, Anthony Mackie, Wood Harris, Judy Greer, David Dastmalchian, Michael Douglas. Directed by Peyton Reed. Screenplay by Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish, Adam McKay, Paul Rudd. Based on Ant-Man (comic book) by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Jack Kirby. Produced by Kevin Feige. Run Time: 117 minutes. USA Superhero, Action

I will admit to some apprehension about seeing Ant-Man, the latest entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the last film in Phase Two. I had read about all the changes to script and to director and about the delays in releasing and frankly, I wondered if Marvel had perhaps gone one step too far, had squeezed a little too much from the tube this time. While I like Paul Rudd, I can't say he'd be someone I'd think of for a super hero. And what is Michael Douglas doing in a comic book movie?

I'm pleased to say that Ant-Man, despite it's four credited screenwriters, is better than I would have feared. While I was looking forward to what Edgar "Cornetto Trilogy" Wright might have written, seeing Adam McKay's name as a screenwriter gave me some pause. Nothing against him as a person, but I did have visions of an Anchorman-like approach to the story and that type of humor would not really be appropriate for this kind of film. There is more cursing in this film than I remember in previous MCU entries; not sure which writer was responsible for that, but overall though, there is a better mix of humor and action than I would have suspected going in.

There are a few problems with the screenplay, such as a woeful regard for time. We're told at one point they need to act in a few days and then we're treated to a montage of training which seems to last longer than the original time frame given. But don't let the space-time continuum get in your way, when you have to believe a man wearing a suit can shrink down to insect-size at the push of a button. There is a sort of pasted-on love story, which frankly detracts a little from the film. It would be nice to see a man and woman work together without always falling in love by the end. And finally, the movie ends up being a little more than a heist movie, a high-tech super hero heist film, but really not much more than that.

This is very much a special effects-laden film and for the most part they work very well. I'm not a big fan of insect movies in general, but I wasn't nearly as repelled by them as I would have suspected. Somehow ants are not as bad as others, I guess. I liked the ants in Them! and they're not nightmare fuel here. Perhaps I might not be saying that if I'd seen Ant-Man in the fake 3-D it is currently also released in.

Paul Rudd makes a good Scott Lang/Ant-Man. Obviously, he put on several pounds of muscle for the film, but he still retains his good-natured appeal. After Ben Kingsley's appearance in Iron Man 3 (2014) and Robert Redford's in Captain America: Winter Soldier (2014), I'm guessing there is no longer any stigma about actors of Michael Douglas' caliber appearing in these films. It was really odd to see him portray essentially an old man, Hank Pym. And while I can't say I'm yet over the time-waster Lost turned out to be, I don't hold that against Evangeline Lilly, who plays Douglas' daughter, Hope Van Dyne.

The supporting cast is pretty good, especially Michael Pena, who plays Luis, a small time criminal with visions of grandeur. And I'm beginning to think Corey Stoll, Darren Cross, can only play villains. And why not, he plays them very well.

Unlike her non-appearance in Tomorrowland, Jane Greer makes the cut here, playing Scott's ex-wife, Maggie, and the fiancee to the San Francisco police detective Paxton (Bobby Cannavale), who is after Scott for a number of transgressions, both personal and criminal.

While Ant-Man is a better entry in the MCU than I could have hoped for, I can't help but feel the experience was a little anti-climatic. Shouldn't Phase Two have concluded with Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)? This feels like the kind of film Marvel, now a part of Disney, could put out in their sleep.

Sadly, Ant-Man is not the next coming of The Guardians of the Galaxy, but rather a mid-ranger in the Marvel Cinematic Universe; a base hit, but not a grand slam home run. The promise of Ant-Man will return is greeted with more of a "of course it will", than "I can't wait."

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Stubs – Hollow Triumph

Hollow Triumph (1948) Starring: Paul Henreid, Joan Bennett, Eduard Franz. Directed by Steve Sekely. Screenplay by Daniel Fuchs. Based on the novel Hollow Triumph by Murray Forbes (Chicago, 1946). Produced by Paul Henreid. Run Time: 83 minutes. U.S. Black and White Film Noir, Drama, Crime

Paul Henreid is not a name that gets mentioned a lot on Trophy Unlocked. The last time was in reference to his role as Victor Lazlo in Casablanca (1942), but he did have a successful career in Hollywood. An émigré from Austro-Hungary, Henreid began making films in Germany, appearing in such films as Dawn (1933) and The Secret of Cavelli (1934) before moving to Great Britain in 1935. When World War II began in 1939, Henreid faced deportation as an enemy alien before fellow actor Conrad Veidt, who would also later co-star in Casablanca, spoke up for him.

After appearing in Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939) and Night Train to Munich (1940), RKO brought him to the U.S. under contract. In typical Hollywood fashion, Paul von Hernried became the much simpler name: Paul Henreid. In 1942, he appeared opposite Bette Davis in Now, Voyager and Casablanca. After that, he would appear in several films including Hollywood Canteen (1944), Of Human Bondage (1946) and Song of Love (1947) before wanting to try his hand at producing. His one and only credit as a producer was Hollow Triumph (1948), also known as Scar in the U.K.

Following Song of Love, which he made at MGM, he was being pursued by that studio for a long-term contract. But like many actors in post-World War II, he didn’t like the restrictions that sort of contract placed on him and he looked for another avenue. Against the wishes of his agent, Lew Wasserman at MCA, Henreid signed up with Eagle-Lion, the recently formed American producing arm of J. Arthur Rank. They offered to let him produce as well as star in his own film. With the financial backing of Robert Young, the railroad magnate, not the actor, Henreid bought the rights to the novel Hollow Triumph, written by fellow actor Murray Forbes.

To write the adaptation, Henreid turned to Daniel Fuchs, a screenwriter responsible for Between The Worlds (1944), a film Henreid had starred in at Warner Bros. While Fuchs, who was destitute at the time, initially turned down the job, claiming he didn’t know anything about gangsters even though he had written the screenplay for The Gangster (1947), Henreid persisted and Fuchs wrote the screenplay.

When it came to casting the film, Henreid originally wanted Evelyn Keyes for the role of Evelyn Hahn, the doctor’s secretary. But she was under contract at the time to Columbia Pictures. In order to lend her, Harry Cohn wanted to read the script, which impressed him so much, he wanted to buy it from Henreid. When Henreid turned his offer down, Keyes was no longer available for loan out.

Enter Joan Bennett, who had recently transformed herself from blonde ingénue to brunette femme fatale, having starred in two Fritz Lang films: The Woman in the Window (1944) and Scarlet Street (1945). But her most recent film with Lang, Secret Beyond the Door (1948), was a flop and Bennett was willing to take a chance on an independent studio like Eagle-Lion.

Unlike other film noirs we’ve reviewed lately, this one is not told in flashback. Rather it opens with John Muller (Paul Henreid) already in jail. While he is a smart man, having gone to medical school for a time, he is a crook by nature, having practiced psycho-analysis without a license and other crimes. Because his brother, Freddie (Eduard Franz), works for the government, John's parole officer has found him a job at the Meiklejohn company in Los Angeles. Despite his parole officer’s doubts, John accepts the offer.

John Muller (Paul Henreid) learns of a job waiting for him in Los Angeles from his parole officer.

But before he does, he gets the old gang together for one more heist. A couple of the men have found regular work, but the promise of a quick payout is enough for most to go along with John’s plan, which is to rob the gambling house owned by rival mobster, Rocky Stansyck (Tom Browne Henry). Stansyck is notorious for holding a grudge when done wrong and one of the gang members recounts how years after an attempted heist, Stansyck found and killed one of the robbers in Europe. But John is adamant they can make a clean getaway.

Once out, John gets his gang back together for one more job.

Things do not go according to plan and only John and Marcy (Herbert Rudley) make it out. The others, Big Boy (Henry Brandon) and Rosie (Robert Ben Ali), are caught and questioned and initially told they’re free to go. But before they’ve gone too far, Stansyck tells one of his hired guns, Bullseye (Jack Webb), not to let them get away.

On the run, Marcy and John split up. John goes to Los Angeles to accept the position at Meiklejohn, while Marcy heads south over the border. John’s work at Meiklejohn is routine and dull, but he’s safe. His supervisor, though, rides him and makes him go out on an errand to deliver books to a client. While he’s on the street, he becomes aware of a man following him. A dentist named Swangron (John Qualen) mistakes him for a doctor who works in his building, Dr. Victor Bartok.  John pulls him into an alleyway and works him over just enough to learn the story. John’s a dead ringer for Dr. Bartok, with the exception that the latter has a long scar on his left side cheek.

Curious, John goes to Bartok’s office, where Marcy (Joan Bennett), the doctor’s secretary and lover, mistakes John for Bartok, giving him a passionate kiss before realizing her error. John stakes out Bartok just long enough to realize they are doppelgangers for each other.

But John is gone too long from work and gets into a fight with his supervisor, which gets physical. John is promptly fired. On his way out, one of his co-workers tells him that Freddie has been there looking for him.

His brother, Freddie (Eduard Franz), brings John news about
Marcy. He also unknowingly leads Stansyck's men to John.

That night, John goes to visit Freddie in his hotel room, where he is shown a newspaper with a story about Marcy’s murder in Mexico City. It is clear that Stansyck’s men have hunted him down. John’s concern that Stansyck’s men might have followed Freddie to Los Angeles is proven correct when Bullseye and a sidekick (Dick Wessell) are down the street waiting for him. John tries to go out through the alley, but they’re already there. Shots are fired, but John manages to escape. They almost catch him on Angel’s Flight, but John manages to kick the sidekick out the back of the moving train car.

John is not happy to see two of Stansyck's henchmen in front of his brother's hotel.

John convinces Evelyn, who is suspicious at first, to go out with him and she falls in love with what must be for her a substitute for the man she really loves, Bartok. This allows John to get into Bartok’s office, where he steals a cancelled check so he can practice Bartok’s signature. He also studies Bartok’s voice from recordings Bartok makes for Evelyn to transcribe and he even reads Bartok’s case files. When he feels he knows everything he needs to, he tells Evelyn that he’s going to Paris and breaks off his relationship with her.

Meanwhile, John has gotten a job at the Clover Garage where Bartok parks his car. A full service garage, attendants will accompany a client to work and then take the car to the garage. Working nights, John narrowly escapes notice when Bullseye and sidekick show up one night at the garage for gas. With his days free, John stalks Bartok, getting a photograph of him, which he uses to meticulously carve a like scar in his cheek. Only, as we find out, the lab that did the blow up for him reversed the negative. Instead of his left cheek, the scar is on John’s.

Using a photo, John carves a scar on his face. Too bad he doesn't notice the photo's been flipped.

John waits for his opportunity and when Bartok comes by early in the morning to get an attendant, John goes with him. When the time is right, John kills Bartok with a heavy wrench and dumps his body into the river. It is only as he’s dumping the body that he notices he’s gotten the scar wrong. Undeterred, John assumes Bartok’s identity, takes up his practice, etc., with no one being any the wiser. Even the dentist who had followed John earlier takes that moment to tell him about the incident, not seeing through the ruse.

That night, John receives a call from Virginia Taylor (Leslie Brooks), a woman Bartok has been seeing, and they meet. She doesn’t notice the difference and the couple goes to a gambling club called Maxwell’s, which Bartok apparently frequents and frequently loses at. John notices later just how bad it is as Bartok has sold many holdings and his bank account is low.

Freddie returns to Los Angeles looking for John. He starts out at Meiklejohn and follows his career to Clover. He’s told that after he handled Dr. Bartok’s car, he quit his job, so Freddie goes to Bartok’s office, hoping he might have some knowledge about what happened to John. Evelyn lets Freddie wait and when John emerges, Freddie blurts out that he’s his brother.

Freddie may suspect. but he doesn't know that he's talking to his brother in Bartok-mode.

At this point, Evelyn puts two and two together and realizes what’s happened. She tells Freddie what John had told her, that he moved to Paris. John pulls her aside and admits to what he’s done. Freddie tells John why he’s looking for him: Stansyck has been arrested on an income tax charge and will soon be deported. With his organization broken up, no one is looking for John any longer. John advises his brother to leave him alone and Freddie leaves.

Evelyn (Joan Bennett) figures out what's going on, but still lies to protect John.

Evelyn, meanwhile, has gone home to pack. She’s planning on leaving on a steamship for Honolulu. John shows up and the two argue, with John hitting her, knocking her off her feet. He promises to renew her faith in love and join her on the boat. He quickly makes arrangements to close the office and hurries to the docks. On his way out, a chairwoman (Mabel Paige) stops him and makes mention that she’d noticed his scar had moved, but he assures her that she was mistaken, which she accepts.

Evelyn gives John another chance, even after he hits her.

As Evelyn waits onboard, John is attacked by two thugs (Robert Bice and Dave Schilling) who work for Maxwell's. They accuse him of welching on his gambling debts. John insists to the men that he is not Bartok, even pointing out their scars are on different cheeks, but the thugs don’t buy it. When John tries to get away, the men shoot him. The police arrive quickly and the thugs are arrested, but John manages to limp away. He’s too late for the boat as it starts to depart. Believing she’s been stood up, Evelyn tearfully goes inside.

Convoluted plots are a real mainstay of film noir and Hollow Triumph certainly has one of its own. As a contemporary reviewer pointed out, “There is not quite enough logic in the plot to enable it to stand up under scrutiny, but the story moves along briskly.” Even though you have to follow along closely, the movie never really loses you, the way, say, The Big Sleep (1946) does.

There are holes to be sure; the biggest is the scar. Surely John would have seen Bartok enough to know which side of his face had the scar and then when no one seems to notice it’s wrong, you have to wonder what was the point. Yes, it shows that John is fallible, none of his plans really work out as planned, but the scar neither gives him away nor saves him in the end. It’s sort of like this really cool device that serves no real purpose.

Still, I like the identity theft angle, which is also nothing new (see Nora Prentiss). But I think Hollow Triumph has an interesting spin on that as well. The fact that the identity he’s stolen puts John in as much trouble as his own, if not more, is a great twist.

John Alton, who handled the cinematography, does some very interesting work with not only light and dark, but also with angles, as this film literally looks at things differently than most films.  Alton’s career dates back to silent films, he shot backgrounds for Ernst Lubitsch’s The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (1927). He was quite in demand with film noirs, shooting several including T-Men (1947), He Walked by Night (1948), Border Incident (1949), The Crooked Way (1949) and Mystery Street (1950). He also was the cinematographer on Father of The Bride (1950), Father’s Little Dividend (1951), worked on An American in Paris (1951) and Elmer Gantry (1960), so his work was not limited to one particular genre.

The film utilizes unique locations with interesting angles.

For the most part, I liked Hollow Triumph. One thing against it though is Paul Henreid himself. Not that he is a bad actor, but his accent was a little jarring. I’m not saying protagonists can’t have one, but when his brother doesn’t have one, it seems a little odd. It was also weird to see a man best known as a romantic lead playing such an undesirable character. Henreid’s fans didn’t really like it much either and many deserted his fan club as a result.

Paul Henreid in Casablanca, the type of roles his fans wanted him to play.

While Henreid managed to make his own movie, he sort of lost out overall. His agent, Wasserman, after their disagreements, turned him over to an assistant to handle and Henreid’s profit sharing for Hollow Triumph was tied to three other pictures which flopped, so he never received his cut from that either. Henreid would continue to act in movies and on television, even directing six features, one, Dead Ringer (1964), starring former Now, Voyager co-star, Bette Davis.

Joan Bennett’s career was definitely slowing down. After Hollow Triumph, she would make only 12 more films, including one starring opposite Spencer Tracy in the aforementioned Father of The Bride and its sequel Father’s Little Dividend. Her role as Evelyn seems very uneven. Wisely suspicious, Evelyn, like so many other women characters in movies at the time, seems so easily swayed into giving even the worst men a second and third chance, all in the hope of finding true love. Sadly, it weakens her character, but that was par for the course in those days.

Evelyn seems smart and suspicious until she decides to give John a third chance.

Overall, I would definitely recommend Hollow Triumph. Not the best film noir, but it’s nice to see an actor try to break out of their mold. Henreid may not have hit a home run, creatively or financially, but you have to admire the attempt.

Be sure to check out our Film Noir Review Hub for reviews of other films in this genre.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Stubs – The Threat

The Threat (1949) Starring: Michael O'Shea, Virginia Grey Charles McGraw  Directed by Felix E. Feist. Screenplay by Dick Irving Hyland and Hugh King. Produced by Hugh King. Run Time: 66 minutes. U.S. Black and White Film Noir, Crime, Drama

RKO is one studio that seemed to make a lot of films that ended up labelled film noir. The lower budgets of such films fit in well with the mini-mayor’s emphasis on B-Pictures. Stranger on the Third Floor (1940), an RKO production is often hailed as the first film noir. During the 40’s the studio had under contract many of the actors most associated with the genre: Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan, Gloria Graham, Jane Greer and Lawrence Tierney. The studio would release such noir classics as Johnny Angel (1945), Nocturne (1946), Crossfire (1947), They Won’tBelieve Me (1947) and one of the greatest of all,  Out of the Past (1947).

For this picture, RKO would use the lesser known Charles McGraw. While McGraw would never reach the heights of Mitchum or Ryan, he still had a distinctive presence on the screen. Good-looking with a gravelly voice, the actor came to Hollywood in 1942 after serving a tour of duty in World War II. He worked at 20th Century Fox, Universal and Eagle-Lion, appearing in such films The Undying Monster (1942), The Killers (1946), T-Men (1947) and The Farmer's Daughter (1947) oftentimes in small and sometimes uncredited roles. Though he does make an impression in T-Men, McGraw would not get his first chance at a lead role until The Threat (1949). 

The story opens after Arnold "Red" Kluger (Charles McGraw), a cold-blooded killer, escapes from Folsom State Prison. Kluger has previously threatened the lives of Los Angeles police detective who arrested him, Ray Williams (Michael O'Shea), and the District Attorney Barker "Mac" MacDonald (Frank Conroy) who prosecuted him.

Williams is at home recuperating from a broken rib with his pregnant wife Ann (Julie Bishop) when his boss Police Insp. Murphy (Robert Shayne) calls to tell him the news of the escape. Even though Murphy advise Williams to sit this one out, Williams gets dressed to go down to police headquarters. His wife is none too happy, but this is apparently Williams’ way.

But he gets no further than his own garage, where he is jumped by Kluger and Nick Damon (Anthony Caruso) who knock him out, kidnap him and steal his police car. Murphy doesn’t know William’s on his way, so when Ann calls, he tells her that he’s probably operating on his own.

Meanwhile, the security around District Attorney MacDonald is tricked by Kluger’s men, who are disguised as painters. Kluger gets the privilege of capturing MacDonald himself. The thugs roll the DA up in a painter’s tarp and they get away.

Arnold Kluger (Charles McGraw) has District Attorney Barker MacDonald (Frank
Conroy) and Detective Ray Williams (Michael O'Shea kidnapped so he can get his revenge.
Next up for kidnapping is Carol (Virginia Grey) a showgirl and former girlfriend of Klugers. All three victims are taken to his Los Angeles hideout. There, Kluger and his gang listen to the police band radio and know what steps are being taken to recapture him.

Kluger wants Williams to call in a false report, but the detective resists. It is only when Kluger threatens to torture MacDonald that Williams complies, calling Murphy with a bad lead.

Williams only cooperates when Kluger threatens to harm
MacDonald. Another kidnap victim Carol (Virginia Grey) watches.
Kluger is a man with a lot of unsettled business. He questions Williams about Carol, whom Williams identifies as Tony Anzo’s girlfriend, rather than Kluger’s. Kluger suspects Carol of having turned informant, but Williams tells him, in front of her, that she never talked. But that isn’t enough to exonerate her in Kluger’s mind. There is the matter of the bracelet on Carol’s arm, which had been in a now empty safety deposit box. When he asks Williams about that, the detective reveals that the police had received an anonymous tip from Mexico City and when they got there it was already empty. Carol says that makes Tony, the man who gave her the bracelet and the squealer and the one most likely to have taken the $100,000 that was inside it.

Kluger trusts no one, least of all Carol, who pleads her innocence to working with the police.
The news doesn’t deter Kluger from moving forward with his plans to meet up with Tony in the desert outside Banning, California, a rendezvous the two had planned all along. To get out there, Kluger needs cover, so he hires an unsuspecting mover, Joe Turner (Don McGuire) who arrives promptly and is taken hostage with the others.

The load the police car into the back of the moving van and then put most of the furniture from the house in there as well. Williams and MacDonald, still tied up and gagged are put in the front seat of the car, the other members of Kluger’s gang, along with Kluger himself ride in the back. Lefty (Frank Richards) is Joe’s cabmate.

While they manage to avoid detention at one of the many roadblocks the police have put up around Los Angeles, a suspicious motorcycle cop at a gas station tells Lefty to unload the van when he hears Williams hit the car horn. Kluger shots the officer dead through one of the holes he’s had drilled in the van’s walls for such an occasion. While the officer is wounded he reads the name on the van.

Kluger shoots an off-duty CHiPs officer through a hole in the moving van.
Murphy and his men go to the owner of the moving company’s house and have him take them to the office. There they find the order Joe had written out, though the destination is not where they’re actually headed.  But still, they have a description of the van and the next morning, a LA sheriff’s plane spots it. However, Kluger, his gang and their hostages have escaped in the police car and driven to a shack near an abandoned airfield outside of Banning.

The authorities find the moving van, but have no idea where Kluger has gone.
Williams and MacDonald are kept handcuffed in an inner room, while the others wait for Tony. Listening to the police radio in the car, Kluger hears that the police are expecting Tony to fly in from Mexico, so he has Williams send a false report to Murphy, giving another location for the rendezvous. While Williams complies, he also relays a message to Ann, sending his regards to Dexter, the name Ann wants to call their baby.

False alarm. They run outside when they hear a plane, but it's not Tony's.
Tiring of being pushed around Joe brandishes a gun he had in the truck. But Kluger manages to talk him out of the gun and just when Joe feels relaxed, Kluger shoots him dead.

Kluger gives Joe back his gun, bullets first.
Later when Nick and Lefty fall asleep, Kluger removes the bullets from their guns. Carol makes one more attempt to seduce her way free, but Kluger turns her down.

Kluger trusts no one and decides to empty everyone's gun while they're asleep.
Meanwhile, Ann picks up on the code embedded in the message, remembering Williams promise to use the name Dexter only if he "had a gun to his back." She warns Murphy using a police radio, so naturally Kluger overhears it. While he’s outside, Carol finds the keys to the handcuffs and gives it to Williams. Freed, he and MacDonald ambush Nick and Lefty and handcuff them. Unaware the guns are empty, Williams and MacDonald retreat back to the inner room with Carol.

Kluger listens to the radio in the police car. 
Kluger enraged by the tables being turned, shoots through the door, hitting his partners, but also wounding Williams. When he hears the sound of Tony’s airplane overhead, Kluger runs outside. This gives Williams a chance to climb up on the rafters of the house and into the outer room. But when he jumps Kluger, he gets overwhelmed and Kluger knocks him out with a chair.

Carol saves the day, picking up Kluger’s gun and shooting him dead with it. Williams recovers in time to thank Carol for her help and to ready himself to take on Tony.

Later, at the hospital, Ann informs her husband that they’re having twins and only one of them will have to be named Dexter.

I’m always amazed at how much action these shorter films pack in. There is rarely a dull moment in The Threat’s 66 minute running time, which more than makes up for its rather straight ahead linear plot. Some of Kluger’s daring plans and how easily they work out provide some surprises, but you pretty much know at the beginning of the film that his plans won’t ultimately pan out.

In the what might have been department, Gloria Grahame, under contract to RKO, was assigned the role of Carol, but turned it down. Not sure if she would have brought more than reputation to the part. I think it would have been a really great twist if Carol had killed Kluger with plans to run away with Tony when he landed. That to me would have made her part more femme fatale than just victim, which is what she is throughout most of the film. Grahame was probably right in avoiding the role, even if she was suspended. There just isn’t enough meat on that bone.

Overall, there is very little character development throughtout the film.The good guy, Williams, is good to a fault and almost to his detriment. He is told to stay home, but he can’t let a direct order keep him from what he thinks and knows he must do. He even manages to have that coded message in his back pocket. Michael O'Shea who played Williams, did not start out as an actor, but rather as a comedian and emcee at speakeasies. I guess all those prohibition era films were right when they showed floor shows. O’Shea had a brief career in films, lasting less than ten years. He doesn’t really shine in this role, so I’m not surprised.

Kluger is bad with no redeeming qualities on exhibit at all. He seems to have a singular purpose and only harm can come to anyone who crosses his plans. Charles McGraw  is an actor who plays characaters on both sides of the law, a gunman in The Killers and a cop in The Narrow Margin (1952). His voice and rugged looks made him a leading man in film noirs. While this role does not display much versatility, his acting is still the main draw of the movie. 

Not a great film noir, but not a bad programmer. There is just enough intrigue and McGraw’s performance to make the film worth watching. While I wouldn’t recommend rushing out to see it, but the next time it’s playing, it might be worth your time to check it out.

Be sure to check out our Film Noir Review Hub for reviews of other films in this genre.

The Threat is available through the Warner Archives: