Essential: CANON CITY (1948)

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A wave of semi-documentary crime films hit the screen after the war. Twentieth Century Fox did quite well with this type of storytelling, a combination of gritty noir and fact-based drama. Eagle-Lion also excelled at producing these stories. The studio had succeeded with pictures like HE WALKED BY NIGHT, T-MEN and TRAPPED. But perhaps the best of these was CANON CITY, filmed in Colorado. CANON CITY does not pretend to be more sophisticated than what it is. The crime doesn’t pay theme works, and so does the idea that you can run but you can’t hide.

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I should point out that CANON CITY is not pronounced Cannon City. There is supposed to be a tilde over the ‘N’ and it is pronounced Canyon City. A prison was opened in Canon City, Colorado back in 1871 when Colorado was still a territory. Five years later, in 1876, when Colorado became a state, the territorial prison became a state prison. For years it housed dangerous criminals, many facing execution. An execution chamber was located on site until the 1990s. Today, the prison is still in operation almost 150 years after it first opened. But less dangerous inmates reside there now, and the prison has become a medium-security facility. The deputy warden’s house has never been rebuilt and still looks like something out of the 1800s.

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For a century and a half the prison has provided continuous employment for residents that live in the surrounding community. There have been a few occasions when residents of Canon City have faced danger due to events at the facility. In 1929 there was a riot, and in late 1947 there was a prison break. Eagle-Lion’s motion picture is a recreation of the prison break.

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Since director Crane Wilbur is utilizing a semi-documentary style, the film begins with a newsreel type tour of the prison as well as a short interview with Warden Roy Best. After the preliminary information is out of the way, we meet Carl Schwartzmiller (Jeff Corey), a lifelong hood and twelve other inmates who will escape with him. One of these men is a very reluctant guy named Jim Sherbondy (Scott Brady). Jim has been inside for almost ten years. He has petitioned the governor for release and thinks Warden Best will recommend him for parole.

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Jim’s become one of the warden’s most trusted inmates, and as a result, he has privileges the other men do not enjoy. For instance, he is allowed to run the darkroom, developing x-rays that are used by doctors in the infirmary. Carl and the other guys want Jim to join their group, because they can hide weapons in the darkroom. It’s an ideal place. Since there is no lock on the door, guards must knock before entering in case Jim’s in the middle of developing film. This provides extra time to dispose of weapons if officials catch on to a planned escape.

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During a visit with his girl, Jim mentions the pressure the others have been putting on him. Of course she does not wish for him to get out under these circumstances. But when Jim learns that his petition for parole has been denied, he becomes angry. He is now more receptive to Carl’s plans. Soon Jim is helping Carl and the others escape, and he goes along with them. This occurs on the 30th of December 1947. There are some very good exterior sequences filmed on location with the men taking off in a blizzard. They separate and a few of the men find their way to farms outside Canon City.

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Much of the action is routine for prison break pictures of the era. But since this one is based on a recent real-life event and has the full cooperation of Warden Best and others who work at the Canon City facility, the filmmakers adhere more closely to the facts. There is fear among members of the local community that some of the escapees, particularly Jim, will enact revenge on the ones who had incarcerated them. It is a situation of high alert that is fraught with suspense and uncertainty. In the sequences that follow, some of the men are either killed or rounded up.

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We also see what is going on with the farm families that are taken hostage and forced to accommodate the men. One particularly good segment involves Mrs. Edith Oliver (Mabel Paige). She’s a feisty old gal who seems sweet on the outside but is determined to outfox the interlopers under her roof. She attacks Carl with a frying pan AND breaks a chair over his head. What strength! She gets a special scene at the end of the movie, where her bravery is commended.

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Soon all the men except one have been caught. And that man, of course, is Jim Sherbondy. The family that Jim has taken hostage has a seven year old boy whose appendix bursts. Despite his reputation as a violent man, Jim softens and lets the family get medical help, which of course leads to his surrender. Jim has been brought to justice and his brief adventure as a fugitive is over. He is returned to the facility in Canon City where he will continue to serve out the rest of his term. Jim Sherbondy would remain in the Colorado penal system until 1969. At that point he had been working in a prison labor camp, when he escaped again. Police officers shot and killed him on a street in Denver. This is his original mug shot, taken in 1937.

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CANON CITY may currently be viewed on YouTube.

Essential: LET’S LIVE A LITTLE (1948)

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Occasionally Eagle-Lion produced comedies, and some of them had top stars. LET’S LIVE A LITTLE was intended for United Artists, but the deal fell through so Robert Cummings and producer Eugene Frenke brought the project to E-L. The studio agreed to finance it with a substantial budget. Frenke’s wife Anna Sten was cast in one of the main roles; though the lead would be given to Hedy Lamarr. It’s interesting to see Cummings do comedy with two very different European actresses. Lamarr plays her role sympathetically, while Sten injects more screwball elements as a self-absorbed vamp. Sten had a gift for comedy, and she nearly walks away with the picture.

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Cummings portrays Duke Crawford, a harried ad exec who is about to have a nervous breakdown. His boss is putting pressure on him to sign Michele Bennett (Sten) to a contract. Michele runs a perfume business, and the agency wants to handle the ads for her wildly successful fragrance. The backstory is that Duke and Michele were previously engaged, but Duke broke it off. Michele will only sign the deal if Duke agrees to propose again and make her his wife. At the same time, Lamarr turns up as Dr. Jo Loring, a well-known psychiatrist who has just written a new book. Duke’s agency is also trying to get her account, so they can advertise the book.

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Duke is so befuddled when he goes to visit Jo, that she assumes he must be a new patient. Later that evening, when Duke wines and dines Michele, he bumps into Jo and another doctor who are also out having dinner. Things go wrong when Michele decides Duke’s not paying enough attention to her. Instead of an engagement ring, she gets a pen and a copy of the contract to sign. Michele causes a ruckus, and this sets off a domino effect that involves several people at the restaurant. Jo’s date falls over a rail and down on to another table, because Michele has angrily thrown a cocktail across the room which led to someone charging over and engaging in a fist fight. This is when Duke really starts to crack up, and his comic breakdown is quite funny.

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As a result of Duke’s mental collapse, he is taken to a resort in the country by Jo and the other doctor. He’s not supposed to use the phone. He’s supposed to forget all about business and concentrate on getting well. Of course, he doesn’t exactly follow orders. Later, Duke and Jo go out on the lake in a row boat. At this point Duke realizes he has feelings for Jo, not Michele. So he leans in for a kiss, but his impulsive behavior catches Jo off guard. She tells him he’s cured and that he needs to go back to the city.

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When Duke returns to the city, he tries to resolve things with Michele. He goes to see her but doesn’t tell her he’s in love with someone else. She signs the contract but keeps it in her possession and says he will have it the minute they are married. He calls her all sorts of names in frustration, and she throws facial cream at him. He retaliates by throwing cream at her. The slapstick in this scene is great, especially Sten’s wailing when she realizes he’s ruined her makeup and clothes. Meanwhile, Jo has also returned to the city, and she is doing a radio show. She describes a recent patient while she’s on the air. It’s clear she’s talking about Duke.

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It’s also clear that Jo’s developed feelings for Duke. But then she sees a newspaper headline that he agreed to marry Michele after all. At this point, Jo starts to crack up. She needs Duke in her life, and she can’t let him marry Michele. But what is Jo going to do about it? Will she tell him how she feels before it’s too late? Or will she remain uptight. Her life would be so much happier, if she could only relax and live a little.

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LET’S LIVE A LITTLE may currently be viewed on YouTube.

Essential: RUTHLESS (1948)

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Perhaps Eagle-Lion’s most ambitious project is this thought-provoking drama directed by Edgar G. Ulmer. It features an enormously talented cast and production values to rival the output of any major studio. This is a high class affair from the word ‘go.’ Most of the performers that appear in RUTHLESS have been loaned out to E-L. From Warners, we have Zachary Scott, Martha Vickers and Sydney Greenstreet; from Paramount, there’s Diana Lynn; and Lucille Bremer has been borrowed from MGM. Freelance actors Louis Hayward and Raymond Burr are also included.

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Zachary Scott portrays a backstabbing scoundrel named Horace Vendig. Horace amasses a fortune at the expense and dignity of others. There’s a prelude, where we see Horace as a young boy from an impoverished background. His father (Burr) doesn’t want him and his mother can’t afford to keep him so he’s adopted by a middle class family. His new family sends him to a good college, where he studies business and sets his sights on wealthier people that he intends to emulate. He is mentored by a top business executive and learns how to get ahead through these connections, even if it means destroying the people who help him and taking what they have.

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Horace has a pal named Vic Lambdin (Hayward), who also attends the same college. They are both interested in a girl known as Martha Burnside (Lynn), only Horace ends up using her then discarding her. Martha’s fate is left unresolved, but we can interpret it as her either having died or having had a nervous breakdown. Diana Lynn pops up again in the story, as a woman named Mallory Flagg who is dating Vic.

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It’s never really said if she’s a different woman who resembles Martha, or if she’s a second personality of Martha. The main point is she ends up with Vic, and this causes pain and regret for Horace. After Martha fell by the wayside, Horace had moved on and set his sights on Buck Mansfield (Greenstreet) and Buck’s luscious wife Christa (Bremer).

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The Mansfields are an obscenely wealthy couple that take Horace under their wing. Horace intends to steal Buck’s company and does so by pretending to be Buck’s friend and sleeping with Christa. He convinces Christa to divorce Buck and marry him, thus giving him her shares of Buck’s company. These shares, combined with shares that Horace already owns, means the company will become Horace’s. Of course, after he ruins Buck and marries Christa, he’s plotting his next power grab. Not surprisingly, the marriage to Christa, which was a means to an end, doesn’t last.

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RUTHLESS is a litany of everything Horace Vendig has ever done to reach the top. And he does reach the top, but of course he’s lonely and miserable up there. The film starts and ends with Vic and Mallory arriving at Horace’s estate for some lavish party. Horace is now acting like a great philanthropist, but throwing money at charities is nothing more than attention seeking on his part. He really does want to see Vic again, to go over old times. But then he meets Mallory and decides to take her away from Vic. However, this time he is not going to get everything, and during a climactic scene along a pier, things take a violent turn. Horace ends up dead in the water.

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Ulmer’s film is stylish and entertaining. It’s a meditation on the vulgar excesses of one man, not too different from CITIZEN KANE. Like Charles Foster Kane, Horace Vendig is still a little boy inside that just wants to be loved. But he has alienated everyone that ever cared about him. They might have been able to applaud his audacity, but they could never applaud him as a man who had anything of any real value. At least not for long.

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RUTHLESS may currently be viewed on YouTube.

Essential: REPEAT PERFORMANCE (1947)

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REPEAT PERFORMANCE is blessed with a good script and engaging performances. It is without a doubt one of the most intelligent motion picture of its era. It typifies post-war output from Eagle-Lion, a fledgling studio that specialized in thought-provoking stories and employed some of the best British and Hollywood talent available.

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Joan Leslie is cast in the lead role, on a loan-out from her home studio Warner Brothers. She gives a stellar performance as Sheila Page, a Broadway star who’s married to an alcoholic writer (played by Louis Hayward). To say their marriage is in trouble is putting it mildly. Joan Leslie’s wholesomeness contrasts perfectly with Louis Hayward, whose character is a scoundrel. She also does nicely with scene stealer Richard Basehart who appears as a sweet but unhinged friend.

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The film uses a time loop. It starts with Sheila Page killing her husband Barney on New Year’s Eve. As the clock strikes twelve, Sheila wanders on to the street in a daze. She wishes she could relive the past year and do things right. Magically, Sheila learns that her wish has been granted. Instead of it being the first day of 1947, she has now gone back to January 1st, 1946. The best part of this gimmick is that it invests even the most casual viewer in the plot outcome. Already, at just five minutes into the film, we are committed to watching the whole thing to see if her nightmare will happen all over again, or if she manages to have a different ending.

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As the previous year (re)plays, we learn how Sheila and Barney’s marriage falls apart. We also observe Sheila’s relationship with other people in their immediate orbit. There’s a sensitive poet named William Williams (Basehart) that has always been supportive, though his year is just as bad as hers. Also, there is a wealthy benefactress (Natalie Schafer); a kind-hearted producer (Tom Conway); and a home wrecker (Virginia Field). All of these people experience their own dilemmas, which compounds the problems Sheila is facing.

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The film touches on how people behave in traumatic situations. Sheila wants to escape the pain she is experiencing in the present and escape to another “reality” that is safer. But can someone redirect their own fate? Is anyone ever truly in control of how things turn out?  

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It’s a self-reflexive sort of film. Joan Leslie is an actress, and she is playing Sheila Page an actress who plays an actress in a new stage play. It goes beyond actress playing actress; she’s actress playing actress playing actress. Joan Leslie is entirely believable, and the rest of the cast are perfectly in-sync with the material and what’s expected of them. 

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Richard Basehart gives a strangely endearing performance. There’s a brilliantly performed scene where Sheila visits William in a mental institution. He manages to convey insanity and supreme intelligence at the same time. At one point Sheila thinks he’s smarter and certainly more sane than her. She says they should be on opposite sides of the table in the visiting room, suggesting she belongs in there, and he’s more than capable of functioning on the outside. It’s like she is speaking to a part of herself.

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The ending of the film returns us to the beginning. Barney does get shot again, and once again, he dies. But William, who’s just escaped from the looney bin, turns out to be the culprit this time. As he’s hauled away by the police, William tells Sheila that they couldn’t stop fate, but they could change who’s responsible. The movie seems to end on a happy note. But who’s to say Sheila won’t kill her next husband and need to relive another year of her life? There’s no sequel, so we don’t get a repeat performance of that.

REPEAT PERFORMANCE may currently be viewed on YouTube.