Essential: WHITE HEAT (1949)

Part 1 of 2

by TopBilled

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It starts with a train robbery that feels like something out of a western movie. In fact, much of WHITE HEAT seems anachronistic in the beginning. Even the gang hideout, which we see after the robbery, feels like one of James Cagney’s earlier gangster pictures from the early 1930s. But I think audiences liked him in these kinds of roles and were willing to go along with it and suspend disbelief.

The train robbery leads to the blinding of one of the gang members, when some white heat from the locomotive sprays directly into his eyes. It’s clear he will never fully recover. At the hideout, he is kept around out of pity. It is also clear that ringmaster Cody Jarrett, Cagney’s character, has deeply rooted psychological issues. There’s an interesting moment where Cody suffers a migraine which he says feels like a ‘red hot buzzsaw.’ Ma Jarrett (Margaret Wycherly), whose first name is never given, quickly takes him to another room and massages the back of his neck. She then gives him liquor to regain his strength. She won’t have her boy showing any signs of weakness in front of the other men.

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The other men include a guy named Big Ed (Steve Cochran) who is sweet on Cody’s wife Verna (Virginia Mayo). We can tell Cody and Ed will have a huge conflict as the story plays out. During the scene where Ma massages Cody, we get the first uttering of the phrase ‘top of the world.’ This will be repeated several times throughout the picture. Later, after Cody has sufficiently regained his strength and is on top of the world again, we see some of his trademark brutality towards Verna. Especially in a scene where she’s admiring a fur coat in a mirror and he kicks a stool out from under her.

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Ma is the driving force behind Cody and the group. It is revealed Cody’s old man died years ago, and so did Cody’s only brother. Now it’s just Ma and Cody, plus Cody’s pals. A storm comes in and they move out. As they leave the cabin, Cody tells one of the guys to kill their blind partner, since he’s of no more use to them and will slow down their getaway. The blind man’s life, however, is temporarily spared, though he is found dead outside in the storm a short time later. More importantly, the one who was supposed to kill him has left fingerprints on the plastic wrapping of a cigarette pack. This gives a police detective (John Archer) a lead in tracking down the Jarrett gang.

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In the next part the men have scattered across the countryside, and Cody is holed up with Ma and Verna at a motor court. Ma goes to buy strawberries one afternoon and as she leaves the market, she’s tailed by the detective and his associate. It leads to a shoot-out at the motel, with the detective gunned down. He will be okay, but Cody, Ma and Verna have taken off. There’s an interesting scene where the Jarretts hide at a movie theater, while a current Warner Brothers film (TASK FORCE) plays. It’s one of the few references that this story takes place in 1949.

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While the movie plays, Cody devises a plan to confess to a robbery back in the midwest, which he didn’t do. It will carry a light prison sentence and make it impossible for him to be connected to the train robbery or having shot the detective.

In the next sequence of the film, Cody’s in prison in the midwest, where he is befriended by an undercover cop (Edmond O’Brien) called Vic Pardo. Meanwhile, Ma and Verna are living in California. Ed and the other men are around, and Ed’s carrying on with Verna. Ma goes to visit Cody and tells him what’s going on, just after Ed has had some guy in the prison work room try to kill Cody. Cody’s eager to get out and teach Ed a lesson. Ma says she’ll take care of Ed, but this leads to her off-screen death.

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The Ma Jarrett character is written out at the one-hour mark. We are denied a chance to see her killed off. After her demise, Cody becomes aimless without her. Ma’s death creates an emptiness in Cody and in the rest of the story. There is a brief voice-over of Ma in Cody’s head, and some occasional references. But losing Wycherly’s expert characterization halfway into the story hurts the film.

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One good thing that comes from Ma’s death is a subsequent scene in the prison lunch room. It happens when Cody has just been told Ma died. He goes completely berserk. This has to be one of the best scenes Cagney ever played. There’s so much psychological pain that Cody’s experiencing at this point. He’s soon diagnosed as a raging lunatic.

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As a result of Cody’s diagnosis, the police detective decides to spring Pardo from prison, since they can no longer get anything on the train robbery. If Cody’s declared legally insane, nothing will be admissible, and they won’t be able to prosecute him. But Pardo’s become close to Cody, and Cody uses his time in a straitjacket to devise a way out of prison with help from some of the others, including Pardo. He may be insane, but he intends to escape and get revenge on Ed. So Pardo stays on the case to thwart these plans.

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In the next sequence Verna’s in San Bernardino with Ed, and we learn she’s the one who killed Ma by shooting Ma in the back. Supposedly to help Ed. But we can be sure Verna had her own reasons to eliminate Ma. They both learn Cody’s out of prison and will catch up to them. When Verna tries to leave in the middle of the night she is apprehended by Cody and stopped. She quickly changes sides and helps Cody kill Ed.

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At this point, we’ve gone beyond the traditional gangster picture into noir territory. Verna is a true femme fatale; and in addition to her cold-blooded behavior, we have Cody’s escalating viciousness which knows no bounds.

Pardo and the others are with them, and there will be a new heist. This time, they will rob a chemical plant in Long Beach. Not sure why they couldn’t rob another train or a bank. While they prepare for the next heist, Cody walks around at night talking to Ma, which he tells Pardo. Pardo’s become a substitute companion for him the way Ma was. And we see how totally useless Verna is, for the most part, in Cody’s life.

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There is a great scene, however, where Verna and Cody get “romantic” (at least their version of romance). She hops on Cody’s back and he is going to take her upstairs. She is trying to act like a classy dame. It’s a funny scene that Mayo does well.

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The next day we see the truck they will use for the heist at the chemical plant. There’s an allusion to the Trojan horse story, since Cody and the other guys will hide inside the truck and get into the chemical plant that way. Pardo is riding in the cab, and while stopping at a gas station to fix the radiator, he tries to get a message to his boss the detective by scrawling something across the men’s room mirror with soap. The detective does get the message a short time later; he and other policemen will be waiting for Cody at the chemical plant. But Cody might be too smart for them.

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We have finally arrived at the film’s climactic sequence. Verna gets picked up by the cops outside the plant, and she tries to cut a deal to sell Cody up the river and save her own skin, which fails. Inside the plant, Cody learns Pardo’s a cop named Fallon. Cagney has some of his most memorable dialogue during this exchange, when it dawns on him he’s been working with an undercover law enforcement agent.

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“A copper? A copper! How do you like that boys, a copper! And his name is Fallon, and we went for it! I went for it. Treated him like a kid brother. And I was going to split 50-50 with a copper!” Incidentally, this dialogue can be heard in Madonna’s nostalgic song ‘White Heat’ on her True Blue album from 1986. At the time, the singer was under contract to Warner Brothers records.

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The final scenes of the movie have the detective and his men lobbing tear gas at Cody who refuses to surrender peaceably. Cody becomes even more vicious, shooting more cops and running to stairs which he climbs to the top of some chemical tanks. Cody is now literally on top of the world. His last victim is a member of his group named Riley who was giving himself up. Meanwhile, Pardo/Fallon has joined the other cops and he has a rifle he’s now firing at Cody. Actor Edmond O’Brien really gets into this scene. Maybe he was tired of Cagney’s superior attitude while filming? He’s eager to bring him down. At one point, when Pardo/Fallon has hit Cody with a bullet, he says “what’s holding him up?” since Cody is still going.

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The answer is Ma. Ma’s the one that’s been holding him up, even in death. Cody then shoots off a round of bullets and hits a tank that starts a fire. This is the end for him. Where we get that famous closing speech, his epitaph: “Made it Ma! Top of the World!” It’s an atomic ending for a very deluded man. However, as Cody dies, the last line of the film is given to Pardo/Fallon who intones, like a Greek chorus, that Cody finally got to the top of the world and it blew up in his face.

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Part 2 of 2

by Jlewis

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WHITE HEAT is one that I hadn’t seen in a while but had seen three times and always enjoyed. I absolutely love Warner Brothers studio productions of the Golden Age. So many scenes presented with an exclamation point for dramatic impact. Max Steiner’s thundering scores make sure every human body in the theater is wide awake and bushy tailed.

This title follows along the some familiar roadways as previous Warner crime dramas like G-MEN and, intriguingly enough, the later six-legged invasion THEM! Regarding the latter film (which, by the way, features the same cinematographer, Sidney Hickox), we may have giant ants invading the LA sewers to hatch their eggs instead of James Cagney’s Arthur Cody Jarrett hatching a “Trojan Horse” oil tanker in order to rob the payroll at a chemical plant, but there are some striking similarities.

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Because neither giant ant nor Cody is an easy villain to subdue, great patience and concentration of a few experts, along with the full force of either the FBI or U.S. military, is needed to bring him (or them!) down and make sure that Crime Does Not Pay. It is also rather eerie just how similar this seemingly straight forward gangster picture not only resembles THEM! but also two Ray Harryhausen dinosaur movies also made for the same studio. All end with the W-B shield and “The End” with our star or beast engulfed in some medieval hellfire to suggest he is returning to nether regions of the Earth’s core he came from.

So… is Cody an “on top of the world” mobster or a monster? Clearly his kind was inspired by some of the atrocities of the Third Reich. Note the very important line spoken by him in response to Hank Fallon (Edmond O’Brien) who is still pretending he might get shot even after he reveals himself to be a cop setting Cody up: “They (Cops) won’t shoot one of their own.”

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Cody kills his own without any remorse or sympathy. Within the first fifteen minutes, one fellow robber gets badly burned in the face and hands by train steam and, although he is bandaged up without any hospital aid, Cody orders him to be shot out of his misery. (Not that he is obeyed since nobody in this movie, regardless of which side of the law they reside, is quite as cold blooded as Cody.) He later shoots bullet holes through a car trunk containing a still living body just so that the victim “can have more air.”

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As much as I love Cagney here and this is arguably one of his greatest performances, he does overdo it at times and occasionally comes off like some Disney cartoon villain ready to morph into a dragon. Don’t get me wrong. There are some great emotional scenes of depth here like the always shown in movie compilations sequence in the prison dining room when he learns of his mother’s death. Yet he can be TOO quick witted and trigger happy that one sometimes wonders if he is really human.

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Speaking of Mother, Margaret Wycherly does a good job in her role even if she doesn’t quite resemble Cody in any way as a family member. She is sweet, but coy, and supposedly is based on “Ma” Barker. We are hinted by the experts analyzing Cody’s history on the other side of the law that he often concocted bogus migraines in order to steal Mother’s attention and distract others, but this story detail is a trifle wacky even for enthusiastic me. I do greatly enjoy the running joke involving her need to get her beloved son strawberries at the market all of the time… as Verna states with great sarcasm.

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This is my all time favorite Virginia Mayo movie, since she has more fun as Verna than she does in any Sam Goldwyn production featuring Danny Kaye or Dana Andrews. So many scene stealing moments, like the way she spits out her gum after kissing Cody. Obviously she is greatly undernourished here and can’t keep her passions in check while Cody is in the pokey.

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She moves on to Big Ed, whom Steve Cochran plays, as if he is the most well-endowed member of the gang. Yet once Cody returns, he is doomed because Verna still must side with her top stallion even if she sometimes fears him and he does, after all, sport the fastest gun. I also like how she squeals in delight as he carries her into the bedroom in a scene not too long after Big Ed’s demise as if to say to us inquiring viewers “Ed?… who was he?”

Although Cody seems obsessed with his mother, it is wife Verna who ultimately manages the controls in his cranium. Note that she is not the one who dies in this movie; just is arrested and denied any more fun. She is also responsible in aiding Big Ed in getting Mother killed and Cody still never finds out! Then again, when he raises his hand at one point, he insists that he never would hurt her… and he never seems to have cause to, even if he may push her off the stool at times.

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Underneath her restless fashion plate persona, she constantly gets him into trouble. Key point of interest: early in the movie, Cody tells another to “to keep away from that radio.” Yet constantly bored Verna needs her big band music to entertain her and Cody must give in… and Hank is all too eager to fix the radio his way… so that every federal agent can find them all.

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I do find Edmund O’Brien is a trifle dull playing Vic Pardo/Hank Fallon, but the script and all of action make his character so interesting that it doesn’t really matter who plays him. Heck, he and Fred Clark could have easily switched roles. My favorite scene from an acting perspective is the gas station restroom mirror sequence and his instant covering of a mirror note to the cops with his sports coat. He also gives a surprisingly cheeky criticism about the dirty mirror to the station owner as Cody looks clueless.

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Also cast, John Archer and Wally Cassell give adequate supporting roles, the former as the man behind Hank’s infiltration into Cagney’s corner.

Director Raoul Walsh’s career spans pretty far back into the teens and it is fitting that the ex-actor who played John Wilkes Booth jumping on the stage after shooting Lincoln in THE BIRTH OF A NATION would also supervise the opening train heist much like some Tom Mix or Buster Keaton spectacular of yesteryear. Then again, this was just another action-packed feather to his cap and Warners was already blessed with previous hits from him like THE ROARING TWENTIES, THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT, HIGH SIERRA, DESPERATE JOURNEY, etc. Both he and cinematographer Sidney Hickox handled some key westerns of importance and the great outdoors are put to good use in a genre that most other directors and studios would have made more indoors-y by comparison.

WHITE HEAT may currently be viewed on YouTube.

 

Essential: ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW (1959)

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Part 1 of 3

TB: This weekend, we’re continuing our theme of Heists Gone Wrong. Previously we discussed WHITE HEAT. And now we’re looking at ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW, a slow-building heist film by Robert Wise that works more as a character study about three very different men thrown together by circumstance. I should point out that this was the late 1950s when segregation was the norm. And one of three men is black, an equal partner with an equal stake in the outcome of their crime.

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TB: Also I should point out that Johnny Ingram the black character is technically the lead character. This is because singer-actor Harry Belafonte receives top billing at the end of the film, and it was his production company that put the project together. It’s clearly a showcase for Belafonte though the other other two leads, portrayed by Robert Ryan and Ed Begley, get roughly the same amount of screen time.

Originally, Richard Widmark was approached to play Earl Slater, the role that Robert Ryan took. I think this is because Widmark had so convincingly essayed a racist in NO WAY OUT (1951); and Earl is about as racist and angry as they come. However, Widmark did not sign with the production. Ryan (a liberal in real life who worked with the ACLU on various causes) stepped in, and he gives one of his best performances.

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TB: It should be said that Earl Slater is an equal opportunity hater. Not only does he dislike blacks, occasionally using the ‘N’ word; he also distrusts successful women, like his wife Lorry (Shelley Winters); and he doesn’t seem to like gay people either. Basically, anyone who is not like him or anyone who does not conform to his idea of society’s correct order, that is someone he hates. So at the heart of this story we have three men who contrive to carry out a heist, but one of them is very polarizing; and it ultimately dooms their ‘mission’ in the end.

TB: What were your initial thoughts when you sat down to watch it?

JL: ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW is one of those familiar titles that I have read about often but hadn’t really seen. For some reason, it isn’t covered much in movie documentary compilations despite a prominent cast, but you see it frequently on TCM schedules and, for a while, it was widely available on DVD. Based on this curious semi-popular-but-too-popular status, my overall impression is that many movie buffs consider it noteworthy enough to watch at least once but not repeatedly like they do other “race commentaries” of 1958-59 such as THE DEFIANT ONES, IMITATION OF LIFE and SAPPHIRE. Not sure why, because it is loaded with a lot of interesting details that are worth re-watching.

TB: It also has those strong performances front and center. Ryan and Begley are the more skilled actors, and they are especially outstanding. And so are the ladies in supporting roles (Winters and Grahame). I think Belafonte does an adequate job in the acting department but is clearly a singer first and an actor second. There’s a good extended scene in a jazz bar where he sings a tune while playing the xylophone. The song is aptly called “All Men Are Evil.”

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JL: Wonderful thing about the mainstream movies of this period are the “cool” jazz soundtracks (John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet here).

TB: The jazz music on the soundtrack gives the film a little something extra. It stays with you after the movie finishes playing. It’s almost a character in its own right.

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JL: Plus we have the very hip post-Saul Bass graphics used with the credits sequences. The Bass influence was everywhere during the second half of the decade and many important features (the Hitchcocks in particular) tried to out-do each other with eye popping openings. This time John and Faith Hubley’s Storyboard is credited, minus the Hubley names, but many moviegoers at the time would have recognized the name of Storyboard. It won the 1959 Oscar in animated short subjects with MOONBIRD and John Hubley was already famous for his earlier work with UPA and trendy animated TV commercials like “I want my Maypo!” One film of theirs that invites particular comparison here is THE TENDER GAME with its multiple exposures of abstract blotches and shapes that move at different speeds on top of each other.

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TB: A lot of the film’s hipness can also be attributed to Robert Wise who I think was wanting to experiment in ways he hadn’t been able to in his earlier films. He uses an infrared camera for some of the outdoor scenes so the daytime sky looks almost black instead of gray, and the clouds are very white. He also favors long shots in this movie, which give it a documentary feel. Since most standard heist films lack realism, I would say Wise was making a conscious decision to work against the earlier trends in this genre and take the story a bit more outside the box. It works.

JL: Hollywood wasn’t quite ready for the French New Wave, but the industry was suddenly making more low budget on-location black and white features now than it had since pre-CinemaScope days.

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TB: The poetic landscape shots are particularly noteworthy. Sometimes the camera lingers on a puddle of water, or on that very black and white sky, or on a piece of trash on the ground. There is this constant awareness of what surrounds us and the main characters as they leave Harlem and go a hundred miles up along the Hudson to a small town where the robbery will occur. Related to this we get a sense of time shifts. The gradual change of day into night, a long delay before the action of the heist gets underway.

JL: Director Robert Wise often likes to open his movies with a shot looking down. WEST SIDE STORY pans Manhattan and New York City streets from above and THE SOUND OF MUSIC present aerials from the Austrian clouds before we zero in on Julie Andrews on a mountain meadow. Here with cinematographer Joseph C. Brun, we look down at a flooded city street with trash everywhere, signaling that we will view some of our characters as streetwise and “trashy.” Literally we start in the gutter. There’s a key line from Harry Belafonte later: “I’ll go down the drain on my own.”

The first human we see is Robert Ryan’s Earl Slater strutting in his winter overcoat with his head held high and a very sad, melancholy music that suggests one who doesn’t feel as high and free (cue shots of pigeons flying overhead) as he appears at first glance. When he joyfully picks up a black girl and uses the P-word in humor, you realize what exactly it is that he isn’t free from.

Tomorrow we continue our discussion of ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW. Please join us…

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Part 2 of 3

TB: We’re back to continue our discussion about ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW. Let’s talk about the contrasts in the main characters and supporting characters. Harry Belafonte’s Johnny Ingram is somewhat different from Robert Ryan’s Earl Slater.

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JL: Johnny is introduced socializing with children of different races. His first words with the children, not adults, is “who wants to make a fortune?” Intriguingly this is right after Ed Begley’s character David Burke tries to con Earl Slater into robbing a bank… in order to make a fortune… but Earl pretends he is too prim and proper for such work despite his own criminal past (even killing somebody). He does tell David that he once stole a watermelon as a kid, which instantly reminded me of popular stereotypes in many older movies… and Johnny again reminds us of the notorious “watermelon patch” later. Simply put, Earl considered his childhood crime a “colored” crime.

TB: But I don’t think this film is meant to be exclusively about a white man looking down on a black world. It is also about a black man looking down on a white world. In some ways Johnny Ingram and Earl Slater are two sides of the same racially tense coin.

JL: Both of them feel like they must adjust to a black versus white world. There is a very white doll in the house of Johnny’s ex-wife Ruth (Kim Hamilton) and daughter Eadie (Lois Thorne), which may subconsciously prompt him to get into an argument with her for befriending too many whites in order to get ahead. Likewise, a very white doll is spotted by Johnny floating in a dirty black lake and covered with black gooey muck, a foreshadow clue of Earl’s fate which will also be intertwined with his own.

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This film is structured to pan back and forth between Johnny and Earl as parallel lives that have more in common than either realize and a fate that will eventually blend together like the women in Ingmar Bergman’s PERSONA. Both are involved with women who are more successful than they are, although Ingram isn’t over Ruth (Kim Hamilton) despite how many women are attracted to him and, after Slater fights with Lorry (Shelly Winters), he tries to seduce (out of spite) married Helen (Gloria Grahame).

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TB: The women are also like two sides of the same coin– one is loyal (Winters) and the other is a cheater (Grahame). We are meant to think that Winters’ character Lorry might too good for Earl Slater. And this is a big part of what prompts him to take his frustrations out with Grahame, as well as agree to do the heist after having told David Burke otherwise. It does seem obvious that Winters’ character provides an insight into Robert Ryan’s home life, and so does Grahame’s character in another context.

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JL: Director Wise was trying to raise important themes by showing different interactions. We also saw this with the doorman character earlier in the film, played by Mel Stewart. The doorman interacted with Earl in a way that was different than how he interacted with Johnny. He envied Johnny in his “swell” clothes and thinking he made it further in life than he can ever hope to, even though we later learn that Johnny is broke, paying alimony checks and suffering gambling losses. Otherwise Johnny wouldn’t get involved in this robbery in the first place. That reaffirms Earl’s later comment that only their clothes make them alike, but race keeps them different.

TB: We should also mention Coco, played by Richard Bright. Coco’s an Italian street thug and he is obviously gay. And in the scene at the club where Coco flirts with Johnny in front of the others, Johnny does not exactly discourage him. But I saw that as Johnny being tolerant and liberal-minded. Johnny was not lusting after him and wanting to hook up with him. Though Coco certainly would have welcomed such attention.

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JL: Yes, Johnny is sympathetic of Coco. With Coco we are gradually starting to see such figures coming “out of the closet” and onto big screens by 1959. (Other key examples: COMPULSION, SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER, not to mention Cary Grant’s Roger hardly feeling threatened by Eve’s possibly “bearded” relationship with “couple” Phillip and Leonard in NORTH BY NORTHWEST.)

TB: I wasn’t sure if Bright was hamming it up, over exaggerating some mannerisms…or if it was an extension of his own real-life personality. It’s an intriguing performance, even though he doesn’t get much screen time and disappears midway through the story.

JL: Richard Bright may play Coco too flamboyantly for some modern tastes. He flirts with Johnny (interracial same sex attraction being especially taboo) and we know Johnny isn’t interested despite being divorced from his wife. What’s more, Johnny momentarily responds to the flirt with a grin, then promptly scowls so Coco also scowls in response. After all, isn’t that what any “respectable” heterosexual is supposed to do when dealing with creatures-of-the-dark?

Johnny then kisses a woman in the hallway so that he is not perceived as an “invisible man.” Yes, we are still a full decade before Stonewall, but Johnny isn’t entirely unsympathetic as he seemingly sings to Coco with the jazz quartet, “Believe me Pretty Mama, it’s not just me… I just can’t bat that jungle outside my front door.”

Tomorrow JLewis and I will wrap up our discussion about ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW.

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Part 3 of 3

TB: Okay, today we’re going to conclude our discussion about ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW. I still find it interesting that Harry Belafonte produced this picture. Not only because the subject matter is daring in spots but also because African American entertainers did not typically wield that much power in Hollywood at the time.

JL: He was co-producer here with HarBel Productions, a pretty lofty status business-wise in an era when the civil rights movement was just getting started. Even if Ryan plays his character as a racist, we know fully well that the actor is not, being completely accepting of Belafonte as one of his bosses in charge of the film. My homework also reveals a blacklisted writer, Abraham Polonsky, was involved since Belafonte was much like Kirk Douglas in his impatience with Hollywood getting over all of this. (This was filmed during the spring of ’59, same as SPARTACUS.)

TB: Let’s mention the scene early in the picture between Earl Slater and a man in a local bar.

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JL: There’s a confrontation with a younger soldier at a bar (who makes some homophobic jokes with his buddy that are rather surprising to modern eyes not used to them in films of this vintage… and comparing to Coco’s scenes earlier) which suggests how Earl feels unappreciated for all of his hard fighting in World War II with this younger show-off, obnoxious generation. He is down on his luck making no money but wife Lorry (Shelley Winters) is doing quite well for herself, causing problems to his sense of masculinity and “provider” feelings. Too many women and too many non-Caucasians are changing the power scale in a landscape that is no longer familiar to him. Later Earl asks Lorry “What happens when I get old?” Lorry responds “You are old now.”

TB: In the second half of the film we have very drab country scenes up along the Hudson (referred to as Melton in the movie).

JL: These scenes add a lonely quality to these characters who never quite trust each other or anybody else in their lives. At one point when David Burke observes Johnny sitting by the water’s edge, there is an interesting zoom shot (more commonplace in mid to late sixties cinema than fifties) that is interesting in the way it expresses his point of view. We already know that Johnny has a close relationship with his daughter (and a shot of the doll appears shortly later), providing happiness in his life in a way that David is not able to experience himself since he is the one of the trio who has nobody.

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TB: Let’s discuss the David Burke character a bit more. He’s played by Ed Begley. He’s the glue that holds Earl and Johnny together for much of the picture. And certainly, his demise during the robbery is bittersweet.  He is so overcome with anger towards the police, his former source of employment, that he gets sloppy and allows his emotions to get the best of him. I was rooting for Begley, and I think that’s because his acting made us sympathize with the character. Especially when he tried to throw the key to Belafonte as he was dying. He was like a surrogate father to him, their bond transcended race.

JL: You are probably right. It probably IS more of a father-son relationship between them. However, the “gay” references (i.e. Coco and the gay stereotype scene at the bar Earl visited) that make this film so bizarre for its time period make me wonder at times if Burke himself may be closeted with a certain attraction (probably more emotional than physical) towards either or both Johnny and Earl.

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JL: The latter asks why he never married in an early scene and later tells him to stop “mothering” him (like Lorry does). Earl also displays an odd reaction when David Burke puts both his hands on Johnny’s face. We are curiously confronted often with Johnny’s failed attempts to kiss his ex-wife, which is open to a number of interpretations although I don’t read necessarily anything “gay” here unless there is some hidden subtle sign that she might be.

Now… maybe David has NO interest at all in these two apart from their bank robbery abilities and he is every bit as heterosexual (if not marrying and sticking to a German shepherd for companionship) as anybody else we see in so many “straight” forward fifties films. Yet it is interesting to note that his fate is no different than many gay characters in films that flooded the screen in subsequent years. Good example: Don Murray’s Brigham in ADVISE AND CONSENT, who also decides to end it himself.

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TB: I wanted to mention a bit more on the robbery itself, how that was staged with Belafonte going to the side door of the bank posing as a black stereotype. I would say Belafonte dressing up as “drug store boy” is important, because it shows he was playing into Earl’s prejudiced notions of blacks. But ironically, he needed to do that, to exploit the stereotype, in order to get the guard to open the door to them. To me, that is much more important than what we have with Stewart’s character…mainly, because it shows how Johnny has to play the white man’s game to get ahead.

JL: And that relates to him accusing his ex-wife for doing the same by socializing with a lot of white PTA people. What is good for the gander is not good for the goose, per the gander’s perspective.

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TB: What did you think about the ending of this film? Especially how both of them let their rage get the best of them. Just like Begley’s character with the passing cop car, they all have their Achilles heels. It’s a film with so many layers, so much going on.

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JL: Without Burke’s affection for both… or whatever it may have been… keeping them together, a great battle erupts on top of fuel tanks similar to WHITE HEAT. After battling their racial differences, the cops are unable to distinguish them from each other… again, echoes of PERSONA and the opening shots of one very black city gutter that makes everything the same dark shade.

It is a very “bleak” movie in which all three characters get killed… and you wonder why. Probably puts all of our own troubles in perspective. Johnny’s daughter must now deal with the death of a parent and her mother may feel remorse for not expressing more affection for him when he needed it (turning the cheek on him and being rather cold). Shelley Winters’ Lorry did beg for forgiveness for “hating” Earl earlier, so there is some closure there. Also who will look after the German shepherd?

TB: Yes, I think it would have been nice if there had been a coda at the end…with Lorry finding out what happened to Earl; plus as you say, Johnny’s ex and daughter finding out what happened to him. They’re all in the dark about the new job the men are doing. Wise could have cut from the explosion to Lorry finding a slip of paper where Earl had written down David’s address. She goes to David’s place, another short scene with the elevator man perhaps; and they go inside, find the dog unattended; and it’s clear something went wrong.

Then maybe a memorial scene at a cemetery with Lorry and dog (she’s now taken ownership of it) along with Johnny’s ex and daughter. The men could have ended up buried next to each other for eternity, with David’s grave nearby. That would have been ironic, and it might have been better than what we have now, with the cops hauling two dead bodies away at the site of the explosion. And a sign that tells us the obvious.

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ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW may currently be viewed on YouTube.

Essential: CITY THAT NEVER SLEEPS (1953)

TB: Today we’re looking at one of the better crime dramas produced by Republic Pictures. Like we did last week, Jlewis will start with his observations and I will be back at the end to provide some impressions and concluding remarks.

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Jlewis wrote:

Our narrator is the great Spirit of the City, later revealed as Sgt. Joe. This is the legendary Chill Wills himself, whom we are all familiar with in oh-so-many classics (i.e. discussing Liz Taylor to Dennis Hopper in GIANT “I’ve always had a strange power over your mother”). He introduces us to “just one night” in this particular city and the key emphasis here is the “fallen” status of its citizens.

Greg (Wally Russell from WHITE HEAT), is introduced as a “once he was an actor and now he is down to this…” reduced to being a “mechanical man” in store fronts. This line I found peculiar because some of these display artists just might do better financially than struggling actors do, so why is it a “down to this” situation?

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Then we have another Johnny (since no crime film is complete without a Johnny), played by Gig Young, who slinks into the nightclub to observe his ex-girlfriend Sally (Mala Powers) whom he ditched when he found out she was a dancer. Yeah, but it is not like she is dancing in her all-together (along with other ladies in evening gowns with poodles on a leash) and is probably making good money as well. Sally ain’t happy either, telling Johnny she had dreams of performing “in ballet slippers” but is now “grounded to this.” She plans to hook up with Greg the “mechanical robot.”

Then there’s Haye Stewart (William Talman) and his pearly white bunny rabbit, being a magician who suffered because he got too greedy as a pick-pocket. We see him performing with a top hat for a visiting Stubby (Ron Haggerthy), busy munching on peanuts with little enthusiasm. He pulls out a pop gun just before a cut to the following character…

“… and here is my most brilliant criminal attorney being interviewed by the press as he stands by his lovely young wife” (Marie Windsor). Yes, according to the Spirit of the City, towering above them all is Edward Arnold at his swarmiest playing Penrod Biddel, whom, to “the eyes of the world”, he is the “ultimate success of fortune and good living.” Plus Johnny needs him as much as Jimmy Stewart in MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON did not, since he is bored-out-of-his-mind living with affectionate “good” wife Kathy (Paula Raymond) and her annoying mother instead of “sexy” Sally and working as a cop with the force under the guidance of his father-in-law daddy, played by another familiar face, Otto Hulett from THE MOB.

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Soon the Spirit of the City shows up in person to meet Johnny. “You can call me Joe” our beloved Chill Wills tells him. Dressed as a sergeant, he is like Clarence the guardian angel in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE in some ways, but is still a real character in our story who works at Johnny’s unit. The two ride together in a car as Johnny makes a visit with Mister Swarmy to get conned into arresting The Magician out-of-state (this being Chicago and Indiana as the other state). “Get your errand squared away?” Joe jokingly quips… oh, he can see through Johnny like an X-ray machine.

One clever gimmick I like early in the film are the women smacking gum and Stubby eating peanuts. We see a very sarcastic showgirl with a New York accent posing as a French dancer; her gum-smacking suggests she is all about The Act, delivering a falsified image to a public. When Johnny delivers a baby unexpectedly to a woman whom a taxi driver is concerned about, we the viewers observe the crowd observing Johnny. One woman smacks her gum, suggesting she might have opinions as to why the woman was “in trouble” (thinking she might have been drunk or something?), but stops chewing as she watches in awe at Johnny’s abilities.

We the viewers started out questioning Johnny’s morals here since he is attracted to a woman he is not married to, is eager to leave the force despite how good he is at the role, wants to leave a loving wife and father-in-law who supports him and is willing to get bribed by Mister Swarmy, I mean Penrod. Yet we are learning quickly that he is just an average guy who means well but has faced a roadblock in his life and is questioning everything. In many ways he is like the two Jimmy Stewart characters in the popular Capra-Corn entertainments that I referenced already.

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It is interesting that Joe asks Johnny if he ever had children and Johnny sarcastically replies “at my pay?”, prompting a very abrupt edit cut to a shot of Haye Stewart’s rabbit in a cage. On one level, this parallels Johnny feeling caged by both his job and marriage. On another level, according to Parker Tyler’s excellent Sex In Films, rabbits were popular in Hollywood films from the 1920s through ’50s as a symbol of one male character’s “potency” or a female being desirable sexually to men merely because she is as innocent looking as a bunny (or “Angel Face” like Sally). Their frequent inclusions (Bugs Bunny not counting) were a clever in-joke for viewers in-the-know due to how much popular literature during the first half of the 20th century used rabbits in a similar fashion; in this case, film makers were getting around the Production Code. Are we being hinted that Haye might have fathered the child whom Johnny delivered suddenly?

We do learn shortly that he is sexually involved with Penrod’s “lovely young wife”… and Penrod himself looks scornfully at an unmade bed at Hayes’ apartment when he sees the two of them together but fully dressed.

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Intriguingly I found myself questioning why Stubby hangs out with him. Technically we are still in the pre-Stonewall era and should not be thinking this is that kind of relationship when it may not be. Haye to Stubby regarding his father (revealed to be Johnny’s too and Stubby is his younger brother) “You ever told him that you… know me?” “You told me not to!” Stubby also feels “I am rotting away, standing at street corners whistling at dolls” since he isn’t terribly fond of “dolls”. He wants to “turn a trick” with Hayes instead.

Of course, the “trick” turns out to be something different than some may suspect it is. They just want to steal (pickpocket style) some important documents from Penrod’s office files because Hayes on again, off again works for Penrod in a dirty way and Penrod was trying to con Johnny into getting him arrested and out of his life. Love the little note Penrod left in his files to dupe Wayne: “You utter fool! Who do you think you are dealing with?” Yet you can not out-trick a magician for long and that same note shows up in Penrod’s own safe later.

This deceptively standard B-budget cop film resembles that scrappily re-painted wall in your home. If you scrape off some of the old paint, you might find something interesting underneath. There are many layers covering other layers. It is a modern film in certain respects.

In other respects, it does show its age. One minor little detail that I am sure you will think I am just being nitpicky with involves a “deacon” in trouble for a crooked dice game. Far too many old Hollywood films showed African Americans obsessed with dice just as they were with watermelons and stealing chickens. Not that this film purposely stereotypes in any way and the scene is presented matter-of-fact with no ridicule or condensation at all. However, I wonder if they would have done better casting a Caucasian actor for this role while giving black actors other roles less demeaning (since we see none elsewhere). Animated cartoons (George Pal Puppetoons, Warner Looney Tunes, etc.) had stopped with the racial “dice” stereotypes by 1946 due to complaints from the NAACP and Ebony magazine editors, so I am all the more surprised that a mainstream feature-length live-action feature shot as late as 1952-53 with prominent stars resorts to this.

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Curiously this very questionable scene is jump-cut to a scene of Greg in an almost-but-not-quite “golden” blackface and white gloves resembling those used in minstrel shows trying to talk Sally into dating him. Not that a modern viewer would be questioning had that scene been edited in at a different point in the picture. Also Greg’s get-up does play an all-important part when he becomes a witness of a crime while posing as a storefront animatronic mannequin. This is a very clever idea that makes this noir more distinctive than the competition.

The ending has our hero win out in the end and Sgt. Joe play up his Lewis Stone role in true GRAND HOTEL style as our Greek chorus… or is he really Clarence from IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE? However there are still some pleasant surprises along the way there involving a surprise family tragedy that gets Johnny to rethink his career and an action climax with our villain the magician aboard train tracks.

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Everybody winds up with their proper partners in the end (Sally hooks up with Greg I guess, unless he did get hurt in the surprise gunfire… since we don’t get that resolved) and another marriage is kept in tact. Johnny and Stubby are reunited as brothers in a church scene as one carries the other on his back, prompting me to hum a certain Hollies tune of 1969 since Stubby ain’t heavy.

At head quarters, Johnny gets his badge returned to him since he previously tossed it off the tracks. “You almost lost it” he is informed. “Yes.” And now “Johnny Kelly is home. Home to stay, while others are just getting up for work.” Thank you, Sgt. Joe.

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Republic was Hollywood’s top B-factory and handled quite a number of modest budgeted noirs, but this one is slicker than most. The impressive musical score over the titles makes it feel like a Warner production with credited R. Dale Butts echoing Max Steiner a bit. Cinematography from John L. Russell of later PSYCHO fame helps this considerably as well, featuring very high contrast action shots with shadows that are literally shadows, diagonal streets creating a sense of anxiety to the characters involved and fast car chases inserted that look great at first until you notice a few stock shots repeated on screen. By and large, this is a B-pic looking very Grade A. Could it have been a great film rather than a satisfying good-but-average one? Perhaps. Yet I won’t complain since it is entertaining enough.

***

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TopBilled wrote:

One of the plot points in CITY THAT NEVER SLEEPS is how Gig Young’s policeman character makes less than his wife (Paula Raymond) who works outside the home. The script goes out of its way to have her feel guilty about it. She tells her father-in-law she plans to quit her job and will be satisfied with living on just a policeman’s salary. The sexist message is that her success has threatened Young’s sense of pride and masculinity.

The other message, besides the blatant sexism, is that women take on extra work not to pay household bills like electricity and rent, but they take on extra jobs so they can have money to buy new dresses, jewelry and fancy things their working class husbands can’t afford. Raymond’s character is made to realize she’s been “frivolous” taking a good paying job and she has to right that dreadful wrong!

Also, in CITY THAT NEVER SLEEPS, we have Mala Powers as a show girl who seems to be unhappy until she decides to marry a guy beneath her station in life. And Marie Windsor plays the greedy wife of Edward Arnold’s wealthy but crooked attorney. Windsor’s character is definitely not shown in a good light, because she’s not satisfied with the finer things in life her husband can afford to give her. She betrays him and gets killed as a result.

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Speaking of Windsor, I had talked about her noir work when I reviewed THE SNIPER, and in some ways her death in this movie seems inspired by her death scene in THE SNIPER. She’s fantastic in both movies.

I don’t really see the Chill Wills character as a spirit or an angel. I see him as a metaphor in the flesh, which gives this B film something extra and pushes it into the A- range.

This is one of Martin Scorsese’s favorite Republic pictures, and one of the reasons why he has partnered with Paramount to re-introduce some of the recently restored Republic titles. He presented CITY THAT NEVER SLEEPS on TCM last year, then included it as part of a retrospective at MoMA in New York City. Now it’s available on iTunes as part of a series of Scorsese’s recommended films.

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