Other Dashiell Writings:

Flicks - June 2004
The Marriage Circle
Man of Aran
Il Posto
Law of Desire
My Man Godfrey (1936)

More Moore
Fahrenheit 9/11

Flicks - May 2004
King of New York
The Iron Horse
Bob le Flambeur
Coup de Torchon
Roberta (1935)

 

 

 

 

 

SHOCK CORRIDOR (Samuel Fuller, 1963).

Fuller was noted for exploring edgy social themes within a B-movie context. Here we have an egotistical reporter (Peter Breck), desperate to win a Pulitzer Prize, deliberately getting himself committed to a mental hospital in order to solve a murder. The murder mystery is practically weightless. The film's real purpose is to display the lurid environment of an insane asylum through the eyes of an outsider, and to make some barbed social criticism along the way.

There are a few bold ideas and powerful moments here, wrapped up in a big wad of melodramatic nonsense. Fuller, who wrote the script, had the unfortunate idea of making the reporter's girlfriend (Constance Towers) a stripper, and this love interest angle, with long scenes of her anguishing over his decision to join the madhouse, along with ludicrous dream sequences where her superimposed image pops up around the reporter's head while he sleeps, is painfully bad. The handsome Breck, whose face is familiar from numerous TV roles, flails about within his limited acting range, and is never convincing. Fuller tries to ratchet the emotional level up at every moment. The effect is tacky, overwrought, and -- in scenes such as Breck stumbling into the nympho ward, or a fellow patient force-feeding him chewing gum -- frequently laughable.

On the plus side, some of the film's devices pay off. Stanley Cortez's black-and-white photography looks great (although Fuller's idea of interspersing brief color sequences when the patients talk about their dreams doesn't work). A subplot involving a black patient (Hari Rhodes) who believes he's the Grand Wizard of the KKK is actually quite compelling. Watching this man spouting racist slogans and baiting a black attendant is an eerie spectacle indeed. Fuller also takes a shot at militarism and the arms race, through the character of a Korean War vet (James Best) who thinks he's a Confederate officer. The idea is that America has become a madhouse, but the film's idiotic storyline and grotesque stereotypes of mental illness undercut its intended social impact.

I'M ALL RIGHT JACK (John Boulting, 1959).

Upper-class twit Stanley Windrush (Ian Carmichael) is too feather-brained to succeed in management, so his shifty uncle (Dennis Price) gets him a job as a worker in his missile plant. The union members, headed by a dogged socialist named Kite (Peter Sellers) immediately suspect Stanley as a plant, but eventually he wins their trust, even moving in with Kite and his contentious family. But his naïveté, and the sinister machinations of management, lead to disaster.

From the very first scene, the film establishes itself as one of the cleverest and most delightful British comedies ever made. The Boultings (brother Roy was the producer) go beyond even the surface propriety of the Ealing comedies, sparing no one in their satiric assault on the greed and dishonesty of the English class system. At the same time, the picture is never heavy-handed; it always has the air of a silly romp. Carmichael is the empty-headed fool par excellence. Richard Attenborough and the wonderful Margaret Rutherford are on hand representing the idiotic venality of the ruling class. Terry-Thomas, a comic actor who rarely appeared to advantage in his later films, is perfect here as the arrogant, yet slightly befuddled plant manager. The rest of the cast embody their various caricatures with zest.

But Peter Sellers steals the film as the stolid, dogmatic, not-too-bright shop steward Fred Kite. Sporting a Hitler mustache and an air of shabby, put-upon dignity, Sellers almost plays the role straight. He never overplays or goes for the cheap laugh, and thus makes his eccentric character oddly sympathetic. With just a pained look in his eyes or a shift in body language he can convey the most amusing quirks. This is the role, along with his turn in The Mouse That Roared (released the same year), that vaulted him to international attention.

The movie was very successful, but the left wing in England was quite unhappy with it. The picture takes shots at both management and labor, making them look equally ridiculous and petty. There's no question that the screenplay employs gross exaggeration -- the idea, for instance, that workers would be paid to sit around and play cards because the union wouldn't allow them to be laid off, is preposterous -- but exaggeration is the stock and trade of comedy and satire. Critics complained that I'm All Right Jack was too negative, as if satire is supposed to provide positive solutions to problems instead of making fun of them. But with the passing of forty years, we can clearly see this movie for what it is -- a remarkably fresh, intelligent and well-acted film that is still as funny as ever.

DR. MABUSE, THE GAMBLER
(Fritz Lang, 1922).

The sinister psychiatrist and master of disguise Dr. Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) uses his powers of mesmerism to win huge sums from unsuspecting gamblers -- money that funds his gang of murderous criminals. On his trail is a determined police inspector (Bernhard Goetzke) who recruits a dissolute countess (Gertrude Welcker) to try to infiltrate the gang.

Lang's epic-length film, released in two parts, took the crime melodrama to a new level. With its many characters and intricate, complicated storyline, the picture is a more unified version of the great crime serials such as Feuillade's Les Vampires, or Lang's own Spiders. The longer form gives Lang a chance to stretch out, particularly in exploring a connection between eroticism and decadence, in the passion of a dancer (Aud Egede Nissen) for the power of Mabuse, as well as the effete thrill-seeking of the Countess, who frequents gambling dens for entertainment and complains that no sensation is strong enough to stimulate her any more.

The popular character of the master criminal Mabuse was created by novelist Norbert Jacques, who worked closely with Lang and Thea von Harbou on the adaptation. Klein-Rogge dominates the film in the title role -- the intensity of his stare really is frightening. The acting is generally understated for its day, and the cinematography (Carl Hoffmann) is breathtaking. There was a kind of vogue for very long movies in 1920s Germany -- the four-hour running time for Dr. Mabuse (albeit originally in two parts) was not that unusual. This aspect makes it somewhat less accessible today, however. The picture starts off at a brilliant pace -- an early sequence in which the disguised Mabuse manipulates the stock market to enrich himself is a little masterpiece of crisp editing. But in Part Two, the film starts to drag. There aren't enough new ideas in the story to sustain the length, and Lang relies too much on extended scenes of talking, with wordy intertitles. Still, by the end of the film we've witnessed grand theft, hypnotism, murder, abduction, suicide, a rousing gunfight, and a descent into madness. The film was a huge success. Most of all, it succeeds in creating a mood of chilling and implacable corruption. The plot is outlandish, but the atmosphere of dread reflects social conditions that were very real.

The Image DVD features a beautiful print restored by David Shepard, with a fine musical score by Robert Israel and interesting commentary by scholar David Kalat.

THE BIG COMBO (Joseph Lewis, 1955).

A detective (Cornel Wilde) is obsessed with catching a vicious gangster named Brown (Richard Conte), and he's also in love with the gangster's beautiful girlfriend (Jean Wallace), who is torn between attraction to Brown and loathing of her corrupt life.

The plot, with an implausible hook concerning the detective's search for Brown's wife (Helen Walker), is run-of-the-mill, and the dialogue (Philip Yordan) is nothing to get excited about either. But Lewis had a remarkable ability to infuse poetry into the most banal material, and The Big Combo is one of his best efforts. He uses film noir techniques -- high contrast lighting, shadows and fog, unusual camera angles -- to accentuate the more subliminal aspects of character and action. Intense lighting makes the icy blonde Wallace (Cornel Wilde's offscreen wife) stand out from the darkness around her like a beacon of desperate hope. A scene where Conte starts kissing her and then sinks downward out of the frame while we keep looking at her face, was quite daring for its time and was almost cut by the producers. Another scene involving Wilde being tortured by Conte and his henchman through the use of a hearing aid, is brutally effective -- and later the same hearing aid (belonging to Brown's partner in crime, played by Brian Donlevy) is used in a brilliant touch that I won't give away. A strange sidelight to all this is the passionate devotion, which will have unmistakably homoerotic undertones for most of today's viewers, felt for each other by Brown's two hitmen, played by Lee Van Cleef and Earl Holliman.

Everyone in the film is tormented in one way or another, and fear is rampant, but the lead-footed script might have undermined the mood if it weren't for the performance of Conte, who is a wonderful villain -- supremely self-confident, smiling, and dapper. He knows that menace is more effective when conveyed through smooth-talking charm rather than a snarl.

The Big Combo is not a masterpiece; it's not as startlingly inventive as Lewis's best film, Gun Crazy (1949), but it's a quality B-film, satisfying and dark.

COUNSELLOR AT LAW (William Wyler, 1933).

George Simon (John Barrymore) is one of the top lawyers in Manhattan, with an office in the Empire State Building. A little crooked at times, he takes high-profile business cases for the money, while finding the time to defend poor clients as well. A scrapper from an immigrant background who has climbed to the top through talent and hard work, he adores his haughty upper-class wife (Doris Kenyon), who cares more about her social standing than about him. Meanwhile, he doesn't notice that his loyal secretary (Bebe Daniels) is in love with him.

We learn all this naturally in the course of the film, rather than being told, which is one of the many virtues of this fast-talking adaptation of an excellent play by Elmer Rice, who wrote the screenplay. The perfectionist Wyler finally came into his own with this film, and he did it by staying true to the play; maintaining a crisp, exciting pace; and getting the best out of the actors, especially Barrymore, who is magnificent.

Everything takes place in the offices (and outside hallways) of Simon's law firm. Wyler wisely saw that there was no need to "open up" the play. Instead he has the characters constantly moving between the various rooms, while spouting rapid-fire dialogue. We are kept on our toes throughout the story, having to keep track of the many different characters and storylines, so there is never a dull moment. The drama is leavened with humor (Isabel Jewell's high-voiced receptionist is a scream), and the minor characters are peculiar without seeming too exaggerated. This is a movie for grown-ups -- there is no false sentimentality or melodrama to mar the picture's smooth, engrossing style.

Although the word "Jewish" is never mentioned (it was taboo in the movies of those days), the film doesn't hide the issue of antisemitism, for those who were aware enough to see it. Simon's mother (Clara Langsner) is obviously Jewish, and the cool distance that Simon's gentile wife keeps from her is pointedly expressed. A plot to have Simon disbarred is obviously instigated by forces that resent the success of someone with his background. Even the topical (and controversial) subject of Depression-era class struggle is not skirted at all, in the character of a young socialist (Vincent Sherman) whose case is taken by Simon, but who scorns the lawyer's compromises with society. (Carl Laemmle, Jr., who produced the film for his father's Universal studio, was more open to such political elements in his pictures than the heads of the major studios would ever be.)

Barrymore's performance is tremendously disciplined -- his character is wry, gruff, quick-thinking, and tender by turns, yet the acting never goes over the top. Simon's maniacal obsession with work, and the contained fury of his working methods, are beautifully conveyed. It's really like nothing else Barrymore ever did on film, a breakneck acting style that looks ahead to the later screwball era. The character's insecurities are as believable and integral to the role as his energy and strength. The underrated Bebe Daniels is sensitive and touching as the devoted secretary Roxy, and the entire cast (many of them recreating their stage roles) is first-rate. Counsellor at Law is a complete triumph of script, acting, and direction. They really don't get much better than this.

©2004 Chris Dashiell
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