They Drive by Night (1940) – An OCF Classic Movie Review

This story about truckers back in the depression era is described as a film noir but I think I’d call it a melodrama.  George Raft and Humphrey Bogart are brothers Joe and Paul Fabrini.  They are partners in a long-haul trucking business.  They are owed money by the scheduler who assigns them loads and relatedly they owe money to the guy who sold them their truck.  We see them dealing with both sides of this debt relationship.  We also see how dangerous driving at the edge of exhaustion can be when their friend crashes his truck on the road in front of them because he fell asleep at the wheel.  And finally, it catches up with the Fabrinis.  Paul falls asleep at the wheel and drives off a slope.  The truck is totaled and because of his injuries Paul has his right arm amputated.  Joe breaks the news to Paul’s wife Pearl and she admits she is almost relieved that his disability will keep him from driving trucks ever again and at least spare his life.  Feeling responsible for what has happened to Paul Joe goes to an old friend of his Ed Carlsen (Alan Hale) who has a trucking company and obtains a driving job which will allow him to support Paul and Pearl.  But it won’t pay enough to allow Joe to marry his new girlfriend Cassie Harley (Ann Sheridan).  But there is a complication.  Ed’s wife Lana (Ida Lupino) is infatuated with Joe.  She talks Ed into making Joe the scheduler so that he’ll be around the garage and therefore easier for her to fraternize with.  But Joe refuses to go behind his boss and friend’s back with this unfaithful wife.  Finally, after being rejected categorically by Joe because of her status as Ed’s wife Lana goes crazy.  She drives Ed home from a party and after parking the car in the garage she leaves him drunk and passed out in the car and closes the garage door with the car engine on.  She explains the asphyxiation to the police as Ed sleeping drunk in the car as he often did and him somehow waking up, starting the engine and then falling back asleep.

With Ed gone Lana brings Joe into the business as a partner.  But now she finds out that Joe is engaged to be married.  She becomes enraged and tells Joe that she murdered Ed for him and won’t be separated from him for any reason.  Joe rebuffs her and walks away shocked.  Lana, now consumed by bitterness goes to the police and confesses that she murdered Ed but swears that Joe forced her to do it against her will.  Now there is a trial in which the circumstantial evidence provided by Lana makes Joe’s position very bad.  But when Lana finally testifies at the trial she has become totally unhinged through guilt.  She claims that she was compelled to kill Ed by the presence of the automatic garage door mechanism.  And she is dragged out of the courtroom laughing hysterically that it was the door that made her do it.

And so, we get the happy ending.  Joe owns the trucking business, Paul is his scheduler, the truckers admire and like Joe for his honest treatment and now Joe has the money to marry Cassie.

This movie is a product of the Hays Code.  Criminals have to be punished so we know that Lana is going to get her comeuppance and because Joe is a stand-up guy, he’ll end up okay.  And because this is a Warner Bros. studio production it has a lot of the character actors that were around at that time.  Alan Hale, Roscoe Karns and Charles Halton were some of the more memorable faces you see.  Karns has a relatively minor part as one of the truck drivers but he steals several scenes with his goofball manner and his fascination with playing the pinball games that seem to be in every diner that the truckers frequent along their routes between Los Angeles and San Francisco.  The camaraderie between the truckers and the diner personnel is a substantial portion of the movie and some of the more interesting dialog.  But the movie belongs to Raft and Lupino.  Her ill-fated infatuation for him powers the plot, such as it is.  As I said, I consider this a melodrama and not a great movie.  But the Raft’s interaction with the rest of the cast other than Lupino makes this movie an interesting slice of life from the depression era and full of human interest.  This is not a great movie but it’s fun to watch. I recommend it on that basis.

The Petrified Forest (1936) – An OCF Classic Movie Review

Petrified Forest was adapted from a stage play of the same name that had also starred Leslie Howard and Humphrey Bogart.  Howard play Alan Squier a down on his luck writer who has lost faith in his life.  He has hitchhiked his way into the Petrified Forest region of Arizona and shows up at a diner where Gabrielle Maple, played by Bette Davis, and her grandfather are running the business while Gabrielle’s father is out with his band of vigilantes trying to track down notorious bank robber Duke Mantee and his gang.  The gang has killed six men and is known to be in the general vicinity.  Alan takes a liking to Gabrielle because of her artistic bent and she finds him both mysterious and attractive because of his cultured manner and his knowledge of the world.

There are several other characters, a rich couple and their chauffeur, a gas attendant at the diner who is infatuated with Gabrielle and some lawmen looking for Mantee.  But the story comes down to the occupants of the diner being held hostage by Mantee and his gang until they are ready to leave.  At a certain point Alan decides that he will take advantage of the situation to give Gabrielle the chance to fulfill her dream of going to France and becoming an artist.  He writes his $5,000 life insurance policy over to her and gets Mantee to agree to shoot Alan before he leaves the diner.

Eventually the law finds Mantee and Alan forces a reluctant Mantee to shoot him before he departs.  Then Alan dies a long talkative death in Gabrielle’s arms.  Then she recites some French poetry while still clutching the corpse.  Yikes.

There are some scenes in the movie that are amusing.  The early part of the movie where Alan is talking about his early life and where he discusses art and life with Gabrielle are pretty good.  But the whole world-weary artist tired of living and anxious to die in a noble gesture is absurd and extremely ridiculous to watch.  Also, Bogart’s Mantee is a laid on a little bit too thick for my liking.  How he got from Brooklyn to Arizona seems odd.  Gabrielle’s grandfather is played by Charley Grapewin who was Dorothy’s Uncle Henry in the Wizard of Oz.  He is quite entertaining as the grizzled old survivor of the old west.

Some people might be interested in this film as a period piece showing what a stage play was like during the Great Depression and some might be interested to see an early Bogart role.  But I can’t recommend it in good faith.  It’s just too hokey.

In a Lonely Place (1950) – An OCF Classic Movie Review

“In a Lonely Place” is a less well-known film in Humphrey Bogart’s catalog but the plot and character combine to play very well to Bogart’s strengths.  In the story Bogart is a Hollywood screen writer named Dixon “Dix” Steele who has been down on his luck of late.  And in the first scene we also discover that he has an explosive temper that easily leads him into physical altercations.  Steele is at a restaurant where he meets up with some colleagues and other movie making types, producers, agents and actors.  A producer who is somewhat obnoxious makes a crack about an alcoholic actor that happens to be Steele’s friend and Dix physically assaults him and has to be restrained.  During the evening we learn that Dix ix supposed to read a novel for his agent to see if it is suitable for a movie treatment.  Because he is too tired and hung over, he asks the hat check girl, Mildred Atkinson, who has read the book to accompany him back to his apartment and recite a summary of the book for him.  She agrees and we see her enthusiastically summarize the book to Dix who is obviously unimpressed with the plot.  When she finishes, he explains that he is too tired to drive her home and gives her a generous amount of cash to catch a cab around the block on her own.  At one point in the scene Dix is looking out the apartment window and he sees a woman standing on her balcony.  The two of them stare at each other for an extended moment and Dix is obviously interested.  The scene ends with Dix sending Mildred on her way and catching another look at the neighbor woman who is in the apartment courtyard.

The next morning Dix is awakened by a ring at his doorbell.  An old army pal of his Brub Nicolai is calling.  Brub is now a police detective and his boss, Capt. Lochner, wants to talk to Dix.  Dix had been Nicolai’s commanding officer in WW II and their relationship is presented as casually friendly.  At the police station Dix is unemotional and seemingly unconcerned to hear that Mildred was strangled to death after leaving his home the night before.  Lochner is noticeably suspicious of Steele’s seemingly callous disregard for the girl’s murder but when the neighbor woman who had shared the glances with Dix the night before, Laurel Gray, comes into the police station and in front of Dix confirms the fact that Mildred left Steele’s apartment alone, the police let Dix go home.  Interestingly on his way home Dix pays a florist to have two dozen white roses sent to Mildred Atkinson’s home.

The setup after this is two tracks.  Dix and Laurel fall in love and we see the relationship vitalize Dix.  Notably his screen writing work benefits enormously.  He is happier than he has been in years.  The other track is Capt. Lochner pursuing evidence of Steele’s guilt in the Atkinson murder.  He instructs Nicolai to socialize with Dix and Laurel.  Nicolai and his wife invite them to dinner and go out on the town with the couple.  These get togethers serve to only increase suspicion of Dix.  He really does have a violent and slightly disturbed personality.  And finally, Capt. Lochner calls Laurel in to discuss Steele’s long and troubled history of violence.  This plants the seeds of doubt about Dix deep into her mind.  And it is the catalyst that eventually destroys her trust in him.  When Dix and Laurel are at the Nicolais’ home one night it comes out that Laurel had met with Capt. Lochner without telling Dix.  Dix flies into a rage and storms away and Laurel barely catches up with him before he drives off into the night like a madman.  Driving at seventy miles an hour around winding mountain roads he barely avoids numerous accidents but finally sideswipes a car at an intersection.  The driver angrily insults him for damaging his car and Dix pummels him into unconsciousness on the side of the road.  But when he is about to brain the helpless man with a large rock Laurel screams at him and brings him back to his senses.  They drive off and Dix relates how he’s been in a hundred fights like this.  Laurel asks if that makes it better.  He tries to justify himself based on the verbal taunt the other driver made.  She reminds him that all the guy called him was a “blind knuckle-headed squirrel.”  He becomes slightly contrite and lets her drive them home from there.  The next day after reading of the attack in the newspaper Dix goes to the post office and sends three hundred dollars to his victim in the name of Joe Squirrel.

But now Laurel is so shaken by the knowledge of Steele’s murderous temper that she even doubts whether he is innocent of Mildred’s murder.  She cannot sleep and begins taking sleeping pills.  Sensing that things are slipping away Dix tells Laurel that they are going to get engaged that day and married that night in Las Vegas.  Too afraid to refuse him she agrees but secretly makes plans to run off on a flight to New York City.  She confesses to Steele’s agent Mel that she is leaving him.  Mel tells her it will crush Dix and counsels her to give Dix a consolation victory by allowing Mel to have the script approved by the studio before she leaves him as this will soften the blow to his ego.  This sets up a scene at the “engagement party” at their favorite restaurant where a call comes in from the studio revealing that Mel gave the script to the studio without Dix’s permission.  Dix slaps Mel viciously in the face breaking his glasses.  Dix goes into the bathroom to apologize to Mel but by the time he returns to the table Laurel has fled.

Dix confronts Laurel in her apartment and all his suspicions that she is leaving him are on display.  She has taken off his engagement ring and is hiding her preparations to flee the state.  Finally, a call from the travel agent reveals all and as she tries to placate him Dix grabs Laurel and starts to strangle her.  But before it’s too late he comes to his senses, lets her go and starts walking away.  The phone rings again and it is Nicolai and Lochner calling to apologize to Dix and Laurel.  Mildred Atkinson’s boyfriend has confessed to her murder.  Dix lifelessly passes the phone to a still visibly choked and groggy Laurel who listens to Lochner’s apology with vacant eyes.  She mentions before she hangs up that a day earlier this news would have meant a great deal more.  The movie ends with Laurel watching from her open door as Dix walks dazedly away to his apartment.

This movie comes at an interesting point in the transition from the studio system of the golden age of Hollywood to the aftermath with independent production companies struggling to get movies financed and made.  Bogart’s production company was able to capitalize on the talents of the actors, directors and production people available at that point to give the film the polished Hollywood look but he was stepping way from the safe plot devices and social conventions that wouldn’t have allowed a big star like Bogart to steer so far onto the dark side.  But this is what Bogart was looking for.  Earlier in his career he could be the psychotic gangster but after Casablanca and The Big Sleep he would have to be at least nominally a good guy.  This restriction to his choices was against his interests and so he sought out a film noir like this that gave the audience what they wanted.

And it is very effective.  Gloria Grahame as Laurel is very interesting to watch.  She performs the varying stages of her relationship with Dix in a convincing and entertaining way.  The supporting cast is good.  But it is Bogart who performs the tour de force.  He is given a very good script and he plays it to the hilt.  There are nice little touches throughout the movie that actually endear Dix to the audience.  He really is a very personable madman.  All his friends really do like him even after he beats them up.  Bogart’s work in this film compares very favorably to any of his better known and critically praised roles.  And the ending is wonderfully dissatisfying.  If Bogart had been cleared a day earlier none of his crazed actions would have happened and Laurel never would have doubted his innocence or his sanity.  At the same time we see that Steele is a dangerously violent man with the potential to kill in the heat of the moment.  A very nice dilemma for the audience to digest.

Highly recommended.

The Maltese Falcon – An OCF Classic Movie Review

Back in late October of 2016 I reviewed Dashiell Hammett’s crime novel “The Maltese Falcon.”  To describe the review as highly enthusiastic would be an understatement.  I raved about the book.  Well, I’ll almost repeat the performance for John Huston’s film.  There are differences, of course.  And if you had read the book before seeing the movie you’d feel that both Bogart and Astor were physically miscast.  But the movie on its own merits is superb.

John Huston based the movie quite faithfully on Hammett’s book.  Humphrey Bogart is Sam Spade, one half of the San Francisco based private detective firm of Spade and Archer. He’s also his partner Miles Archer’s wife Iva’s former lover (now that’s a complicated sentence!).

The story opens up with Spade’s secretary, Effie Perine, announcing a new client, Miss Wonderly (played by Mary Astor).  Wonderly starts telling a tale to Spade and also Archer as he walks in during the story.  The story is a fabrication about a make-believe teen-age sister who has been spirited away cross country by a real gangster named Floyd Thursby.  Spade and Archer agree to tail Thursby in return for some also very real hundred dollar bills that Wonderly pays them.

Archer is shot and killed during his surveillance and this begins a sequence of events that involves Spade in a confusing search for the truth about a globe-trotting quest to obtain the legendary Maltese Falcon.  We meet corpulent Caspar Gutman played by Sidney Greenstreet, who is the ringleader behind the search.  Then there is Joel Cairo, played by Peter Lorre, a mincing effeminate who sometimes works for Gutman and sometimes doesn’t.  There is Wilmer Cook, Gutman’s young triggerman who would rather shoot his opponents than negotiate terms.  And finally, we have the good cop/ bad cop duo of Detective Tom Polhaus and Lieutenant Dundy.  They show up at strategic moments to inform Spade that he is everyone’s favorite suspect in several murders.

The exact details of the plot are too much fun to spoil so I won’t go into much detail but suffice it to say there really aren’t any innocent parties involved unless you include Effie Perine.  Wonderly, which isn’t the last fake name she’ll go by in the film is up to her neck in the crimes but she becomes Spade’s femme fatale in the story.  Spade is a ruthless but strangely honorable character who lives by his own logic.  The criminals (almost everyone) spend the entire movie double-crossing each other in various iterations.  They all prove, with some prodding from Spade, that there is indeed no honor among thieves.  But the plot moves along smartly and by the end all the loose ends are neatly tied up and Sam Spade is sort of the last man standing.  Bogart even gets to apply an ironic tagline to describe the futility of the whole mad enterprise.

When I said that Bogart and Astor were physically miscast it’s because in the book Spade is described as a tall muscular blond-haired man.  Bogart is none of those things.  And in the book Mary Astor’s character is a woman in her twenties which at the point when this movie was made could hardly describe Astor.  Regardless, they make the characters their own.  And especially Bogart’s Spade is iconic and basically defines the Sam Spade character for most of the people who have heard of the Maltese Falcon.  The rest of the cast is also excellent.  Greenstreet and Lorre are so interesting and memorable that at certain points in the movie they push even Bogart out of the spotlight.

If you’ve never seen the Maltese Falcon then shame on you.  In fact, if I had my way people would read the book first and then watch the movie.  But this is a fallen world we live in.  So, I guess I’m already asking too much to recommend a black and white movie.  Highly recommended.

To Have and Have Not – An OCF Classic Movie Review

I think it’s a pretty remarkable fact, that of the seven films Humphrey Bogart was in that I consider worth owning my least favorite is Casablanca.  It’s possible I’ve just seen it too many times already.  But I’ve watched the Maltese Falcon many times more and I keep putting it back on.  It’s probably just individual preference.  But for whatever the reason, it tells me that Bogart was in a relatively large number of excellent films.

Next up is “To Have and Have Not.”  This movie is based on the Hemingway story.  Several of the story elements seem to be repeated in Casablanca.  A French colony is the locale.  There are Nazis and their local collaborators as the heavies.  Resistance fighters including a husband and wife team are looking for help from Bogart’s character.  There is a damsel in distress as the love interest.  And there’s a singer at a piano that entertains us here and there.  Honestly, I actually prefer this earlier film to Casablanca.  It seems less strained.

Bogey is a charter boat captain named Harry Morgan and Walter Brennan is his first mate Eddie.  Eddie is a garrulous alcoholic and Harry’s best friend.  They’re on a two-week charter out of Florida to the French island of Martinique.  Martinique is part of “Free France” but under the thumb of the Nazis.  Harry meets Marie Browning, played by a very young Lauren Bacall, as she is stealing the wallet of Harry’s charter client.  He takes the wallet from her and discovers from the contents that the client was about to skip out without paying him.  Grateful for her unwitting help he strikes up a friendship with her.  Of course, under the circumstances, their relationship is always awkward and tentative.  He calls her Slim which rankles her so she calls him Steve probably from spite.  But for all their verbal jousting the sparks begin to fly and it’s easy to see that their relationship will be at least one of the major plot lines.

The hotel where Harry, Marie and apparently anyone involved in the resistance ends up staying is owned by, of course, Frenchy, or so he is called by Harry.  He is the clandestine leader of the resistance.  Several of his friends get into a gun battle with the local police and this leads to Harry and Marie falling under the suspicious eye of the local police chief.  He seizes their passports and money and grills them for information on the resistance.

Being strapped for cash Harry accepts a job ferrying some resistance fighters onto the island, Paul and Hellene de Bursac.  Paul gets shot during a sea voyage while evading the harbor patrol.  Harry acts as a cut-rate trauma surgeon and removes the bullet.  The police finally decide to put the squeeze on Harry by grilling Eddie this triggers a confrontation that Harry controls with the help of a few well aimed bullets.  Throughout Marie is at Harry’s side, for the most part, trading wisecracks and supporting the cause.  Eddie supplies the comic relief and Hoagy Carmichael as Cricket plays the piano and employs Marie as an ersatz lounge singer.

Bit of well-known classic Hollywood trivia, the sparks flying between Harry and Marie were mirrored in real life between Bogart and Bacall and they shortly afterward became man and wife in real life.  And the chemistry they had translated excellently to film.  Their sparring courtship is fun to watch and although stylized in the manner of director Howard Hawkes’ staccato bantering dialog it comes off as interesting and of its time.  Highly recommended.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre – An OCF Classic Movie Review

There is a school of thought that says Bogart became a big star because of the Maltese Falcon.  It was his first role that extended his acting range beyond the gangster parts he had been doing up to that point.  And the story was a popular book and John Huston’s script was a pip.

So, I’m sure Bogart was more than anxious when he had a second chance to work with Huston.  The Treasure of the Sierra Madre was once again based on a popular book.  And once again Huston’s script is a pip.  Bogart is an American named Dobbs in Tampico, Mexico who is broke and looking for an opportunity to make some money.  After some difficulty collecting back-wages he teams up with two other Americans.  Walter Huston, John Huston’s actual father, plays an old gold prospector Howard and Tim Holt is Curtin who hopes to make a stake before returning to the United States.  The three men discuss what it would take to make a prospecting expedition to the Sierra Madre.  By an amazing coincidence Bogart wins the amount they need off of a lottery ticket and donates it to the expedition.  On the train ride at the outset of the journey to the Sierra Madre, the partners encounter bandits.  This is followed by a long trek through jungles and desert and mountains.  And just as Dobbs and Curtin have become discouraged and want to give up the search Howard mocks them with the news that they’ve been surrounded by gold for the last day but they were too ignorant to see it.  The partners get to work and start a mining operation that rewards their hard work with generous amounts of gold.  And at this point we begin to see the destructive effect of greed and mistrust.  Pretty quickly Dobbs becomes dangerously suspicious of his partners and all remnants of amicable relations evaporate and all that is left is the business of harvesting the gold.  During this time there are episodes involving a claim jumper and later the bandits return.  A very well-known exchange occurs between the head bandit and the partners.  The bandit is pretending to be a policeman and when asked to show his badge he sputters, “Badges?  Badges?  We don’t need no stinking badges!”  The return journey also contains some interesting episodes that eventually split up the partners and leads to open warfare between Dobbs and Curtin.  For the better part of the movie we’ve been watching as Fred C. Dobbs slowly descends into gold madness.  Now he reaches the point of attempting murder.  The end of the movie follows the last scenes where we learn the fate of the partners, the bandits and the gold.

For me this movie is an almost perfect gem of a tale.  It has an interesting blend of humor, adventure and a study of human nature.  Toward the end, Bogart is almost over the top in his manic portrayal of Dobbs but he is an interesting character.  Tim Holt plays the most sympathetic character as Curtin but without a doubt, Walter Huston steals the show from everyone else as the old prospector Howard.  His character is colorful, glib, humorous and just plain engaging.

I highly recommend this movie for everyone.  It’s a classic and timelessly entertaining.