The Man Who Cheated Himself


Street Date 9/25/18;
Flicker Alley;
$39.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Lee J. Cobb, Jane Wyatt, John Dall, Lisa Howard.

Folks familiar with The Man Who Cheated Himself often bring up its offbeat casting, though speaking as one who just recently fell into a YouTube clip of Lee J. Cobb as one of five singing-dancing personalities on an episode of “The Dean Martin Show,” I’m not irrevocably floored at seeing the then future Johnny Friendly taking on a romantic dimension in this indie noir produced by Jack L. Warner’s estranged son (Jack B.).

In other words, Cobb does get to wear a suit, puff on cigarettes at work (Cheated’s cool San Francisco locales aren’t the only thing that make it a period piece) and kiss a dame for whom he has an itch.

As for the dame … well, that casting is indeed something else. On the bonus look-back featurette included on Flicker Alley’s new Blu-ray of the nifty UCLA Film & Television Archive restoration, Eddie (“Czar of Noir”) Muller quotes Folsom Prison Blues to elucidate the character of this rich society type, who has caught Cobb’s eye, to say nothing of his libido. Which is to say that she shoots a man just to watch him die — even though it must be said that events transpire so quickly that it’s no slam-dunk to pinpoint her exact motive. Still, it’s messy, because she did indeed hate the victim in the first place. And he was her husband (messier still). And, cop boyfriend Cobb was in the room, even if it wouldn’t necessarily have been his preference (a full plate of lasagna tossed at the wall).

But getting back to the casting, this unholy wife — a description I’ll just lift from the title of 1957’s Rod Steiger-Diana Dors Technicolor potboiler — is played in atypically over-the-top fashion by, of all people, Jane Wyatt. And, yes: that Jane Wyatt — once of Lost Horizon but most memorably identified with the role she’d soon own: “perfect” mom Margaret Anderson on TV’s “Father Knows Best.” You can just hear her saying to the Anderson kids: “Well, before your father and I were married, I shot my first husband to death — though, actually, he was my second husband — and then a detective friend who was kind of sweet on me took charge of disposing the corpse.” This, at least, would answer the question of why not just Bud but all three Anderson offspring were so messed up (which I, for one, always thought was a great show’s secret weapon).

So, this is the Cheated premise, though there’s still one more wrinkle. New to the police force is an about-to-be-married rookie (John Dall, in more against-type casting) who is not just Cobb’s younger brother but one assigned to work alongside him. And the kid has so much aptitude when it comes to dissecting inconsistencies in a case that’s ironically under Cobb’s very jurisdiction that the older sibling doesn’t know quite what to do (he has enough problems as it is). In terms of a broad, barebones reading, the premise is not too dissimilar to the one in 1952’s Scandal Sheet (directed by Phil Karlson from Sam Fuller’s source novel) in which the editor of a New York rag kills his long-estranged wife and now must deal with a talented young reporter/protege of his who’s about two steps behind in cracking the case.

Actor Dall, of course, played a good guy at heart in Joseph H. Lewis’s classic Gun Crazy (bank knockoffs or not) — but there was something about him that seemed a little “off” in his craving for bad-girl wife Peggy Cummins. Turns out, per the Cheated bonus doc, that Lewis cast Dall because he was gay in real life, and Muller notes that the actor’s projected screen image was more in sync with his role in Hitchcock’s Rope — and, I might add, for his small role in Spartacus, where Dall’s unctuous Marcus Glabrus character sits with Laurence Olivier’s Crassus in the George Steinbrenner box seats as Kirk Douglas and Woody Strode prepare to fight to the death. In Cheated, Dall is decent enough at projecting rookie enthusiasm, and that’s a necessity in the role). Quite striking, though, is actress and future ABC news personality Lisa Howard, who plays his new bride. Though potentially stuck in a throwaway part, Howard is quietly but potently attractive as a kind of well-kempt bohemian that I’ll just bet was true to the period. Howard, who in real life apparently slept with Castro in pursuit of what became a big scoop at the time, was eventually fired by her network over other politically-related activities. Later, she took hundred or so pills in a parking lot, which immediately killed her at age 39. On a July 4th.

At the time of this film, Howard was married to its director (Felix E. Feist). The latter never had big bucks to work with, but even beyond teaming Nancy Reagan with a severed head in 1953’s Donovan’s Brain, he made some movies I like: this one; Deluge; The Threat, Tomorrow Is Another Day; and especially The Devil Thumbs a Ride. (The last is one of those movies, along with Dillinger, Born to Kill and Reservoir Dogs, to offer a guarantee that Lawrence Tierney, even if he were still alive, wouldn’t be starring in any fictional adaptation of Won’t You Be My Neighbor?). According to film historian Julie Kirgo — who’s interviewed here along with czar Muller, Feist’s son Raymond and recent Michael Curtiz biographer Alan Rode (who, along with Muller, is one of this disc’s four credited producers) — Feist only had something like five days of on-the-pavement location shooting in San Francisco. This is beyond amazing.

I’m always struck by the irony of how low-budget postwar filmmakers often had to shoot on the streets of out economic necessity — which is now one of the components that make those films look so vital today (D.O.A. is another that comes to mind). Meanwhile, the same era’s studio-bound noir from the majors looks like exactly that, as taxis make their ways down backlot streets that weren’t really that mean. In any event, Feist got everything there was to get out of his shoe leather and tire tread, and this picture is a veritable travelogue of vintage locations. And then, these visuals get punctuated by a terrific then-and-now bonus section look at this same shorelines and structures, including the buildings and especially corridors of formidably photogenic Fort Point near the Golden Gate Bridge. Vertigo fans will have a grand old time here.

Cheated is the latest baby from the Film Noir Foundation, which was also a major player in the rescue of Woman on the Run and Too Late for Tears before they became Flicker Alley Blu-ray releases as well. It, too, was a distribution “orphan” that fell through the preservation cracks; the younger Warner put it together for distribution by 20th Century-Fox, which apparently gave it somewhere between one and a smattering of year-end, 1950 bookings before putting it into general distribution in ’51. As a point of reference, it didn’t get to my hometown until the first week of May, where it got booked into the smallest downtown movie house — the one where the classier Republic Westerns played — in subordinate billing to Britain’s 7 Days to Noon, which had just taken an Oscar for best story.

That’s a pretty fair double bill — and certainly more enticing than what I saw listed for most of the summer on my neighborhood marquee. The print here is better than I ever anticipated, with big chunks of it nearly immaculate. I don’t know where the restorers are even finding these acceptable copies, which are then simonized to the hilt, but this is a laughably keen improvement over the Cheated atrocities that run on YouTube. And though I’ve never seen it on the old Alpha DVD, even the jacket on that one makes my eyes bleed.

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Day of the Jackal’ and ‘The Man Who Cheated Himself’

Gun Crazy


Available via Warner Archive;
$21.99 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars John Dall, Peggy Cummins.

Paul Schrader, who should know, wrote an essay decades ago listing 10 or so titles that defined film noir, and the ‘B’-with-better-than-‘B’ talent initially known as Deadly Is the Female ended up making the cut. Yet even on the modest grindhouse level, the ultimately retitled Gun Crazy didn’t perpetuate the turning of many box office turnstiles, which is kind of surprising given how punchy and innovative so much of it is.

It doesn’t take much clairvoyance to speculate that this is a movie likely admired by author James Ellroy — who, most appropriately, leads off an hour-plus “what is noir?” doc that’s included on this pristine Blu-ray edition and carried over from a great previously released Warner Entertainment DVD box set devoted to the genre. L.A. Confidential’s source author has his own definition of noir, which is a little more brass-tacks basic than Schrader’s. It has to do with those women who give you the best sex of your life and then end up {insert the predictable Ellroy verb} in the other way as well. Think of the fatalistic Detour syndrome, even if it’s kind of tough to imagine Ann Savage’s character in that dime store classic offering much in a filmy negligee. Spiked heels, maybe.

As one of two married Midwest stickup practitioners whose prolific work habits eventually clog up the region’s APB transmissions, Brit blonde Peggy Cummins plays Crazy’s deadly female half, though she seems more mentally unbalanced than all-out evil. Or at least she does until later in the game, when her self-proclaimed perpetual “nervousness” when pulling off jobs unleashes a previously submerged violent streak — to say nothing of her willingness to use a child as a shield against pursuing authorities while on the lam with her husband. As “DVD Savant” Glenn Erickson notes on the commentary, their official vow-taking was obviously mandated by film censors of the day because living in sin was worse than bumping off victims during armed robberies.

Cummins’ better half (and he is) is played as a child by Russ Tamblyn when he was still billed as Rusty and then by John Dall. The latter is best known these days as the half of the murdering duo in Hitchcock’s Rope who isn’t Farley Granger — though you can also see also see him being smarmy-and-a-half as Laurence Olivier’s guest in the pricey seats (the kind the Steinbrenner family would have at Yankees games) to watch Kirk Douglas battle Woody Strode to the death in the Spartacus arena. Despite this screen history, Dall is a rather sweet guy here: irresistibly drawn to guns but exclusively for their tactile features and not out of any any desire to harm people. Thus, when he meets Cummins as part of her target-shooting job in a carnival, he likely figures that her own attraction to “heat” must be purely recreational as well.

As miscalculations go — though make no mistake, these two really love each other, which may be all he more twisted — this lapse of judgment has to rank with convincing yourself that you’ll be set for life after one last job, despite the fact that you splurge for furs and hit the nightclubs every time you pull a big score. A lot of Gun Crazy’s reputation rests on the superb point-of-view feel to a couple robbery scenes in particular: its influences on Bonnie and Clyde that were even noted in the late ’60s by in-the-knows. I was surprised to learn on Erickson’s commentary that director Joseph H. Lewis had a 30-day shooting schedule — not the kind of time, to be sure, that gave David Lean his countless hours to “wait for the light” but maybe enough for a resourceful ‘B’ director like Lewis to give far more shots than not a novel angle.

Like the breakthrough Dillinger, which to this day gets a surprising number of comely women to “go” for the real life Lawrence (Rap Sheet) Tierney, Gun Crazy was produced by the King Brothers — who were so penny-pinching that I even heard the late humorist Art Buchwald (who was once a friendly  acquaintance) make an out-of-the-blue wisecrack about them. But the Kings weren’t above hiring Blacklisted writers at a fraction of their cost, which is how the non-existent Robert Rich (“fronting” for Dalton Trumbo) later got a writing Oscar for The Brave One, which ended up becoming a preliminary step in breaking HUAC’s hold on the industry.

In Crazy’s case, it’s Millard Kaufman fronting for Trumbo (sharing credit with MacKinlay Kantor, who wrote the source short story) to further class up a melodrama that already had Victor Young score and Russell Harlan behind the camera. I’m always amazed how a lot of the great cinematographers often hopscotched between big productions and small ones (Harlan, a Howard Hawks favorite, had shot Red River just two years earlier). And also that he later pulled off Oscar nominations for black-and-white and color work in the same year, 1962: To Kill a Mockingbird and Hatari!

The Blu-ray is quite a showcase for Harlan’s abilities on a tight budget, and I’m not just talking about camera movements. We don’t often see a ‘B’-movie — or, if you like here, “shaky ‘A’” — getting major-scale high-def treatment, and there are shots here of rain puddles during a nightclub chase scene and of a listening brook that almost made me blink with their clarity and element of surprise. It really makes me wonder what the new 4K version of Detour can possibly look like — a joint effort of worldwide archives way beyond the imagination of the ’40s Hollywood establishment for a movie that probably hasn’t looked all that good since the time I was spitting up on my crib bumpers.

Like a lot of talented working directors who didn’t have their projects handed to them on a platter, Lewis had a spotty career. A lot of people love My Name Is Julia Ross from 1945 and some of his other postwar Columbia’s, though my No. 1 choice has to be 1955’s The Big Combo, complete with its gay henchmen and what Jonathan Demme once volunteered as having the “first cunnilingus scene in American movies” when I expressed my love of the film after spotting a VHS copy in his office. (I suspect this is technically true, unless there are some ancient Stroheim outtakes floating around the MGM archives).

Despite a marked disparity between its best scenes (many) and clunky or merely functional ones (just a few), Gun Crazy would be a clear No. 2 on my Lewis list — one of the achievements that does indeed define film noir, as well as a presumed show-up on just about anyone’s standout movies from 1950 (and it was a very fine year). Great job, Warner.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Gun Crazy’ and ‘Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story’