They Drive By Night

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Warner Archive;
Drama;
$21.98 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars George Raft, Ann Sheridan, Ida Lupino, Humphrey Bogart; Alan Hale, Gale Page, Roscoe Karns, John Litel, George Tobias, Eddie Acuff, Joyce Compton, Marie Blake.

The pace-setting studios of Warner Bros. developed a reputation for cranking out present day working-class melodramas, the realism of which set a black-ink standard that kept the studio financially solvent. Warner took a chance by casting George Raft and Humphrey Bogart, two actors best known for packing heat, as a pair of brothers who share a dream to be wildcat truckers. The script, adapted by Jerry Wald and Richard Macaulay from A. I. Bezzerides’ 1938 novel Long Haul, is a patchwork job that borrows its climax from Bordertown. Fortunately, the studio assigned 1940’s They Drive By Night to director Raoul Walsh, whose robust, matter-of-fact approach to the material was more than enough to compensate for the script’s minor failings.

With creditors beating a well-worn path to their door, Joe Fabrini (George Raft) wonders whether or not he and kid brother Paul (Humphtey Bogart) will ever make a successful living as independent truckers. Joe has a noggin for business and an ability to talk himself out of the stickiest of situations. Much to his disparagement, gas station jockey Pete (Paul Hurst) crafts a running gag out of Paul spending most of his night snoozing while a more responsible Joe does the driving. There appears to be a high mortality rate among truck drivers. Paul’s bride, Pearl (Gale Page), is a precursor to the cop’s wife who lives every day fearing it would be her husband’s last. With all the talk of being a trucker’s widow and Paul continually shown sawing wood in the passenger’s seat, it’s just a matter of time before someone’s going to have an accident. Chalk it up to clumsy foreshadowing on the part of the screenwriters; when sleepy Paul finally takes the wheel, the ensuing head-over-heels dive down the mountainside ejects Joe before claiming his brother’s right arm. Pearl takes an almost perverse delight in Paul’s amputation, thinking the loss of an arm a small price to pay for what could have been his life.

The first half of the picture is spent establishing the brothers’ inability to hold their own as entrepreneurs before climaxing with Paul’s accident. A fist fight over a parking space draws the attention of Joe’s pal (and trucking magnate) Ed Carlsen (Allen Hale) and his wife Lana (Ida Luipino). Sultry Lana’s lusted after Joe since first they met. But Joe and Ed go way back and Lana might just as well be dipped in typhus for all the chance she has at snaring her husband’s loyal friend. Lana spends most of her time belittling Ed or calling out his uncouth, albeit amusing behavior. Ed’s a drunken pig and the only way Lana’s going to get to Joe is by sending her husband to the slaughter and offering Joe a 50/50 cut of the corporation. Hollywood has always been on the cutting edge when it comes to incorporating new technologies as plot devices. The electric eye automatic door opener was invented in 1931 and featured the following year as part of an alarm system in William Dieterle’s Jewel Robbery. If the gag with Paul sleeping in the truck played out exactly as anticipated, an electric garage door opener as a murder weapon returns to haunt Lana in a sinisterly unexpected manner.

Bogart earned fourth billing and favorable reviews for putting aside his gangster tendencies long enough to play a married wage slave looking to spend less time on the road and more time with his ball-and-chain. Walsh and Bogart would follow this up with what amounted to a career-altering role for the actor. High Sierra was not only Bogart’s last gangster lead for Warner, it was the first script the studio threw his way that demanded a degree of depth of characterization. That was followed by The Maltese Falcon, the film that forever cemented Bogart’s tough-guy persona.

Promotional material of the day regularly hyped performance and production value, but few threw  “snappy dialogue” in with the bally. They weren’t kidding when the film’s pressbook promised, “the dialogue whips back and forth with the speed of a teletype machine.” The Fabrini Brothers are referred to as, “so tough they’ll part your hair with a monkey wrench.” As Cassie Hartley, Ann Sheridan lets just enough “oomph” out of the girl to play a fast-talking hash house servitress. When fledgling big rig potentate Joe ogles Cassie’s “classy chassis,” the resourceful redhead turns on her heels and shoots back, “And it’s all mine, too, which is more than you can say for your truck. I don’t owe any payments on it.” When the waitress asks Joe if there’s anything she can get him, he gives her the quick once-over and sighs, “Yeah, but it ain’t on the menu.”

Watching Lupino’s slide from tough-talking temptress to pale, raccoon-eyed psychotic, climaxing with a full mental meltdown on the witness stand (cackling laughter and all) is the film’s greatest reward. And how many times have we seen a mansion swimming pool that didn’t play home to one or more visitors? Kudos to Walsh’s remarkable restraint.

Among the bonus materials, Leonard Maltin, Robert Osborne and Bogart biographer Eric Lax provide backstory in the 10-minute featurette “Divided Highway: The Story of They Drive By Night.” Also included are the film’s original trailer and the 1938 musical short “Swingtime in the Movies” starring everyone’s favorite POPPING head waiter, Fritz Feld.

 

Kino Lorber Preps Controversial 1950 Film ‘Outrage’ for Blu-ray Disc Release

The controversial 1950 film Outrage, one of the first Hollywood films to deal with the subject of rape, will be released on Blu-ray Disc Aug. 8 by Kino Lorber.

The film was directed by pioneering actress and filmmaker Ida Lupino, who also co-wrote the script, and marks the first starring role for Mala Powers.

Powers (Cyrano de Bergerac, City That Never Sleeps) stars as Ann Walton, a young bookkeeper freshly engaged to her boyfriend Jim Owens (Robert Clarke, The Man from Planet X). But her promising life unravels completely when, on her way home from work one evening, she is raped. The trauma of the attack shatters her sense of identity and forces her to flee from home in shame. Praised by Martin Scorsese as “a subdued behavioral study that captures the banality of evil in an ordinary small town,” Outrage in 2020 was deemed a “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” work of art and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.

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The Blu-ray Disc edition features a print of the film restored in HD by Paramount Pictures, from a 4K scan of the 35mm fine grain. The release includes a new audio commentary by film historian Imogen Sara Smith.

Search for Beauty

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Street Date 4/18/23;
Kino Lorber;
Romance;
$24.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Larry ‘Buster’ Crabbe, Ida Lupino, Robert Armstrong, Gertrude Michael, James Gleason, Toby Wing, Frank McGlynn Sr.

After scouring the corners of the globe on a quest to find the Seventh Wonder of the World, Robert Armstrong sets his sights on a pre-code Search for Beauty. The off-camera butler who appears to be dressing Larry Williams (Armstrong) is in actuality a prison guard returning the soon-to-be convict’s belongings. At least some of his belongings — his wallet was shy a few sawbucks. Where Williams comes from, the cops are bigger crooks than the criminals. In the end, Williams gets what he deserves. His girlfriend Jean Strange (Gertrude Michael) also takes the rap for the stock scam, leaving the third accomplice, Dan Healy (James Gleason), unscathed and free to move about the city. One might think it harder for Williams to wheedle his way back into the heart of a dame he sent up the river for two years, but with a fleet 78 minutes to fill, time’s a wastin’ and Jean’s quickly on board.

Ever the scammer who thinks on his feet, Williams comes up with a plan to hire two Olympians — champion swimmer Don Jackson (Larry ‘Buster’ Crabbe) and diving medalist Barbara Hilton (Ida Lupino) — to act as consulting heads on a fitness magazine. Williams read exercise publications while in stir and quickly realizes that it isn’t vim and vigor, but a preoccupation with sexy pictures that sell magazines. Williams and Healy are more interested in peddling skin than they are health, and the sales numbers prove them right. According to Healy, when it comes to sex, “Either you got it, or you’re looking for it.” On an uncomfortable note, Lupino was a mere 15 years old and making her debut in American films. Think of that when Barbara pleads with some of the older male hotel guests to lay off her table-dancing, two-fisted drinking underage cousin (Toby Wing).

Before Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon set his career on an interplanetary trajectory, Buster Crabbe played the part of health guru both on and off camera, and continued to do so until the day he died. I recall Crabbe putting in an appearance on Chicago’s “The Ray Rayner Show,” a popular morning program for mothers and their kids. I was in my early teens and still remember the look on my ma’s face when crusty Crabbe griped, “Ah, nobody gives a good god damn about old people anymore.” It’s Crabbe’s willingness to stick to his guns that adds to the film’s success. Rather than resorting to fisticuffs, Jackson and his scantily clad horde of beefcake gently strongarm the objectionable revelers into submission. And speaking of beefcake, released a few months before the Production Code became law, director Erle C. Kenton’s 1934 effort boasts a locker room scene complete with nude men walking in and out of frame! Historians more interested in technological advancement than they are bare buttcheeks will take note of the embryonic use of the zoom lens. It’s infinitely more interesting than the Busby Berkeley-esque musical numbers set to Souza marches that owe more to calisthenics than they do choreography.

Bonus features include trailers and audio commentary by film historians Lee Gambin and Emma Westwood.

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While the City Sleeps

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Available via Warner Archive;
Warner;
Drama;
$21.99 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Dana Andrews, Rhonda Fleming, Ida Lupino, George Sanders, Vincent Price, John Barrymore Jr.

Fritz Lang’s While the City Sleeps was the first movie I ever saw by a director in Andrew Sarris’ Pantheon who wasn’t named John Ford or Alfred Hitchcock, though Lang was getting along by 1956, and in fact made only one subsequent American movie. That would be the same year’s Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, which Warner Archive is concurrently releasing on Blu-ray as well — though I’ve never liked it as much as Sleeps by a long shot, even if it’s much preferable to the somewhat refashioned Michael Douglas-Amber Tamblyn remake that deservedly went direct to video. Out of a cannon.

I first caught the Sleeps trailer right after I’d turned 9 and knew that this was a movie for me: A greasy serial killer (John Barrymore Jr.) strangles women in their New York apartments and leaves taunting clues after his crime, the most revealing of which is his writing of “Ask Mother” on the wall of the first victim we see. Because I was visiting my grandparents at the time, it was easier to feign it 400 Blows or Day for Night flashback style that I was running off to catch a kiddie matinee — when, in fact, the bill was Sleeps and a British RKO ‘B’ (The Brain Machine), which also looked and sounded essential formative years material.

Sleep was a new kind of movie for me, and after this, Disney kids’ stuff like, say, The Littlest Outlaw just wasn’t going to cut it. Lang’s wall-to-wall tawdriness also served as my first newspaper movie, pretty sure — and even more of one than it was a serial killer melodrama because there’s still 15 or so minutes of narrative to go after the killer is caught. As my first look at big-city journalism (aside from watching Walter Winchell bark on TV), I was impressed by how much everyone in the picture drank. There’s even a drunk scene here by real-life alcoholic lead Dana Andrews to compound the 80-proof ambience, though this is subtext I wouldn’t have appreciated at the time.

Even at a reasonable 99 minutes, Sleeps gets ground down by a clunky boilerplate romance between Pulitzer-winning print newshound/TV commentator Andrews and co-worker Sally Forrest — though it isn’t exactly without interest that he basically would end up using his pert girlfriend as bait for the killer. But at its best, this is a fitfully entertaining portrayal of corporate backstabbing in the kind of burgeoning media complex that gets bonus points for anticipating today’s conglomerates — one of multiple components that made Lang’s cheapie with name (sometimes fading-name) cast a little ahead of it time.

Another of these is the narrative’s prevailing luridness despite a screenplay by the normally tasteful Casey Robinson (here adapting a Charles Einstein novel) — with blatant adultery, imbibings and mildly graphic killings that would be far more common just a couple years later on screen yet here results in a surprisingly randy movie for 1956. Another is its grabber of an extended pre-credits sequence, which was something still fairly rare in the days when Robert Aldrich (whose early films almost always had them) had only a handful of big-screen credits to his name. There’s also a mild hint that broadcast news might be the division that inherited the Earth when it came to journalistic corporate bucks. And though it opened in May 1956 — in the same five-day period that also saw the launches of The Searchers and The Man Who Knew Too Much; you think movies are better today? — someone here was topically savvy enough to make Barrymore’s hood-ish killer resemble Elvis (though Gene Vincent would be an even closer comparison).

So here’s the deal. When the conglomerate’s aged founder dies — his makeshift hospital bed is actually in the office just yards from reporters’ typewriters and Andrews’ broadcast studio — his useless son (Vincent Price, perfect casting) has to take a few hours away from his polo ponies and actually try to run the joint. His solution is to create a new top-dog position and set up a cutthroat competition to get it; the candidates are an old-school print type played by Thomas Mitchell with more ink in his veins than even the internal booze that flowed through his tributaries in Stagecoach); wire service chief George Sanders; and photographer James Craig, who gets kind of sweaty every time he sees Rhonda Fleming (so did my dad). She plays Price’s wife, and it turns out the two are having an affair, even though Craig and Price are nominal buddies. It doesn’t on the face of it sound like a durable long-term strategy with which to land the gig.

Less of a factor here in these machinations is Andrews, who’s more preoccupied with catching the killer with the aid of an old cop buddy (Howard Duff) and also getting Forrest into the sack — the latter a tough order in ’50s Hollywood (the movie wasn’t that advanced). This situation is a point of consternation with Ida Lupino (she plays what newspaper pics used to call a “sob sister’), who comes off as not just enamored with Andrews but so man-hungry that you can almost imagine her taking up with Barrymore were he something more than a drugstore delivery boy who lives at home with … well, mother.

Too many of the scenes are flat, and the office settings are closer to Ed Wood than Trump Enterprises in their drabness, but every once in a while Lang comes up with a shot or full scene that crackles. The opening set-up is very punchy, and there’s a visual that I never forgot from my childhood: Fleming doing stretching exercises behind an opaque portable barrier that suggests a nude state — and then continuing the process while standing in a circle of sand that’s a) either supposed to give her bare feet the feel of the beach; or b) serve as a practice sand trap for Price’s indoor golf putting (you sense that out on the links, most of his Titleists likely end up in one).

The printing source here seems uneven, which means that Sleeps in high-def isn’t as snappy-looking as other Warner Archive Blu-rays, though it’s at minimum a cut above the old Image laserdisc, Warner DVD and even (if memory serves) a 35mm print I ran at the AFI Theater. To compound the casting amusements here, Barrymore’s not quite doddering mother (who dressed him as a girl during childhood) is played by D.W. Griffith star Mae Marsh, who had a long post-silent career in small roles for John Ford (a lot) and others. The segue from The Birth of a Nation to being cast as the mother of a psychopathic Elvis knockoff in the ’50s isn’t one I’d have predicted — but then, who would have anticipated Sylvia Sidney ending up with Tim Burton for Beetlejuice and Mars Attacks!, ack! ack!?

Mike’s Picks: ‘While the City Sleeps’ and ‘Don’t Bother to Knock’

Junior Bonner

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Kino Lorber;
Drama;
$19.99 DVD, $29.99 Blu-ray;
Rated ‘PG.’
Stars Steve McQueen, Robert Preston, Ida Lupino, Ben Johnson, Joe Don Baker.

To hear a welcome barrage of familiar Sam Peckinpah experts accurately tell it as part of Kino’s ample-plus Blu-ray bonus features, not many moviegoers were waiting for Junior Bonner in 1972 at a time when lead Steve McQueen (coming off his Le Mans debacle) needed a hit. I was an exception — and in one of the more folkloric stories in my personal movie-going history, drove 75 Ohio miles (each way) from Columbus to Dayton to see it in an early booking, only to discover that its too-brief engagement had wrapped the previous day. Something must have been in the water (or, given my peer group’s age at the time, firewater): Not long before or after this, a close friend of mine tried to impress a woman by driving the two of them from Columbus to Cleveland to see if they could score tickets for the day’s Browns-Giants game — rudely unaware that the Browns were playing in New York that day.

Both of us could have used the Internet, and Junior Bonner could have used an ad campaign that sold its maker’s most gentle movie as a family drama and not another of the rodeo sagas that were flooding the market at that time. McQueen, Robert Preston and Ida Lupino are three of my favorite screen performers ever, and here they are as a wayward son and his estranged parents, with Joe Don Baker (as the more responsible “Curly” Bonner) as a brother trying to make a go with a (so far) lucrative Prescott, Ariz., real estate development. What more could anyone want — and this at a time when The Wild Bunch, The Ballad of Cable Hogue and Straw Dogs in quick succession had established Peckinpah as possibly the most dazzling U.S. director then going — though rebuttals were intelligently advanced by disciples of Robert Altman and also Mike Nichols, who’d come back big-time from his Catch-22 stumble with the oddly not-on-Blu-ray Carnal Knowledge).

For a movie that bombed at the box office during its release, a lot of people revere Junior Bonner — including Ali MacGraw (also a part of this Blu-ray’s bonus features), whose The Getaway with McQueen opened four months after JB to become what I am virtually certain was Peckinpah’s biggest commercial hit. (She also did Convoy, the director’s penultimate film.) MacGraw is one of many who’ve advanced, or at least implied, the sentiment that Peckinpah’s more characteristic big-screen bloodbaths only told half the story; in other words, where were all you clowns who put Sam the Man down as reprehensible when the still underseen Cable Hogue and then this unpretentious beauty were showing an entirely different side?

Uh, huh.

Via a lovingly constructed Jeb Rosebrook screenplay that Peckinpah fleshes out with a couple of show-stopping extended set pieces, Junior (McQueen) returns to his hometown to compete in a contest that necessitates his doing well in front of parents and old acquaintances, even though he’s been banged up from getting bucked and is otherwise no longer the competitor he used to be. Papa “Ace” (Preston) is an irresponsible mental child — albeit a onetime real-deal rodeo star as well, who keeps eating up Curly’s money-tree generosity in grand schemes that may probably will not extend to his latest: prospecting for minerals in Australia. Meanwhile, the siblings’ heard-it-all-before mom Lupino, who long ago fled the marital coop, is running the knick-knack register at one of Curly’s “shops” in a construction endeavor that earns him no little money but perhaps not a whole lot of respect. Junior matter-of-factly balks at the offer of a cushy job with the business, apparently preferring to nurse body bruises from unfriendly four-legged creatures.

The movie exudes an extraordinary sense of community, with added autobiographical touches here and there, including one McQueen-Preston gesture involving a hat that I’ve never forgotten over the years. Both virtues come through in Rosebrook’s authentic dialogue (sparked by actors who can really deliver it) — and the predominantly nonverbal flair of an elaborate barroom brawl and an earlier parade sequence that’s the best of its type I’ve ever seen on screen. These kinds of sequences are not easy to shoot (the brawl packs a few dozen participants into a cramped widescreen frame), but Peckinpah gave them lots of coverage, which at least one of his editors had always stressed was the way to go.

The project, which came together quickly, is one that McQueen especially coveted as one that would make certain audiences take him seriously as an actor when, in actuality, he had one of the most readably nuanced screen faces of anyone who ever stepped in front of the camera. This is one of his best jobs ever, but rodeo pics were inevitably a tough sell in taste-making geographical regions (I suspect that Nicholas Ray’s as extraordinary The Lusty Men had troubles of its own knocking down 1952 turnstiles). Peckinpah’s take on the genre is extraordinary as well but in quiet ways that camouflage its full virtues. This said, the included coming attraction and TV trailers make it look like a feature-length bundle of clichés and fail to emphasize the extraordinary cast Peckinpah had at his disposal.

Thus, it has always remained for revisionists for trumpet its considerable virtues, and, in fact, Junior Bonner was the very first movie I ever programmed upon launching nearly a decade of daily programming and almost as many whiplashing calendar changes at the AFI Theater in Washington, D.C. Offering the commentary are definitive Peckinpah experts Nick Redman, Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons and David Weddle, who long ago established themselves as the go-to crew on Sam-related voiceovers, no matter which distributor is behind the home release. Rosebrook, who can easily spin an anecdote, rates a half-hour of his own, and another featurette of similar length features an array of actors (L.Q. Jones, Ernie Borgnine and the expected usual suspects) who worked with Peckinpah and lived (though perhaps at times without their livers) to tell about it. One Kris Kristofferson anecdote — about Bob Dylan’s reaction to Peckinpah’s creative response to some faulty lab work on Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid — is by itself worth the price of admission.

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