The Turning Point


Kino Lorber;
$14.95 DVD, $24.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Edmond O’Brien, William Holden, Alexis Smith, Tom Tully, Ed Begley, Carolyn Jones, Ted de Corsia, Whit Bissell.

It was a ratings bonanza. With 30 million Americans tuning in to watch the Kefauver Hearings, the Senate investigating committee on organized crime that stretched between 1951 and 1952, it wasn’t long before Hollywood devised a way to get a cut of the viewership. The Turning Point wasn’t the first feature to use the hearings as a springboard to hard-hitting action, but it remains one of the finest.

The credits roll over a police motorcade whisking John Conroy (Edmund O’Brien) from airport to city hall. The law professor has returned to his hometown to head a special investigative team tasked with breaking up a local crime syndicate headed up by Neil Eichelberger (Ed Begley, snarlier than ever). The press knew very little of Conroy’s endeavor other than he’s been endowed with tremendous powers to get the job done. Joining Conroy is girl friday/love interest ​​Amanda Waycross (Alexis Smith). He’s clearly smitten, but if the awkward kisses he planted on her cheek were any indication, their romance is on a dead end course to Nowheresville. Conroy held no political aspirations even though cracking Eichelberger’s syndicate could land him a seat in the Senate.

Enter Jerry McKibbon (William Holden). A cynical reporter assigned to do a color story on his lifelong friend, McKibbon went so far as openly expressing doubt about Conroy being up for the job. He does, however, admire his friend’s taste in secretaries/reformers. McKibbon immediately gave Waycross the onceover and in jig time decided that a dame should stick to the society page, not mussing up her makeup trying to crack a crime wave. He’d soon become the third prong in a love triangle, but luckily the romance never gets in the way of the action. With the exception of Conroy’s surprisingly wimpish acquiescence to being cucked, the film is better off without it.

The men are boyhood friends, so it’s only natural that McKibbon landed an invite to the Conroy family breakfast table, the spot whence the titular juncture began taking on meaning. For all the year’s McKibbon’s known the Conroy’s, this is the first time the crusading reporter had sensed something strange about father Matt (Tom Tully). It’s not that he refused his son’s job offer as chief investigator; McKibbon was in no position to talk seeing how he, too, turned down Conroy’s request to join his team. It was the flustered manner in which Matt declined the offer that seemed so out of character. Following his hunch, McKibbon tailed Matt to Eichelberger’s office, the last spot on Earth one would look for an honest cop. Matt was supplementing his policeman’s salary by keeping the syndicate aware of his son’s every move. Corrupt cops were common in these parts, but listening to Tully tell it, one questioned why he didn’t turn crooked sooner to help pull his family out of debt. His confessional offers Tully one of those moments a character actor works his entire life for. It’s a moment that stands out above all others, a moment to shine and do something extraordinary, a moment Tully took full advantage of.

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The characters move through space with a grace and naturalism that can only come from a director with decades worth of experience both in front of and behind the camera. William Dieterle spent most of the 1920s as an actor before making the permanent move behind the director’s chair in 1931. It’s been said that his inability to speak English caused the insecure German emigre to overcompensate through his visuals. That may explain the visual flourish at play in such sparkling pre-code diversions for Warner as Jewel Robbery, The Crash and Grand Slam. He had no problem making a smooth transition from studio exteriors to taking full advantage of his Downtown Los Angeles locations, including a quick cameo by the original Angel’s Flight funicular railway.

Conroy was tougher to take down than Eichelberger had expected, McKibbon even moreso. McKibbon had every intention of writing up the story, but for Conroy’s sake chose to leave Matt out of it. Warren Duff wrote the script based on a story by hardboiled suspense writer, Horace McCoy (They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?; Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye ). When not delivering dialog that crackles like a cinder block being lobbed into a dumpster filled with neon tubes, McKibbon can be found standing silently in the shadows like any good reporter, observing from a distance, rapt in contemplation. He didn’t want Conroy to find out that “his father has been crossing him every day of the calendar.” Eichelberger reacted as any paranoiac would, by putting the world on alert. “Everybody’s under glass from here on out,” he cautioned. With fear in his corner, Eichelberger was going to work it as hard as possible, starting with Matt. Some of the paranoia can’t help but wash up against Conroy who doesn’t like it when his journalist pal scoops him in more ways than one. And one would be right to question the logic behind killing the father of the lawman determined to stop just short of ridding the world of you.

A key witness (Adele Longmire, giving a nail-biter of a performance) provided Conroy with the evidence needed to bring the mob to its knees, but not before Neville Brand is brought on board as the out-of-town enforcer contracted to perform a hit on our zealous crusader. And look for Carolyn Jones making her screen debut as a wise-cracking floozy testifying before the committee. In the end, crime doesn’t pay, and to prove it, one of the characters “has to pay an exorbitant price to uphold the majesty of the law.” It’s unlikely, more than a bit sensational, and certainly not the type of ending one would find on television, which at the time of its release was precisely the point.


Ruby Gentry


Street 4/24/18;
Kino Lorber;
$19.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Jennifer Jones, Charlton Heston, Karl Malden, Tom Tully. 

Preceded by Duel in the Sun, The Fountainhead and Beyond the Forest during just the six years leading up to it, swampy Ruby Gentry capped the quartet of potboilers that formed what some later termed as “King Vidor’s hysterical period,” which I suppose puts the silent-to-talkie pioneer in a special club. Which is to ask, did Robert Bresson have a hysterical period? Did Fred Sears, even if you can probably argue that his entire career could be termed as one? The Vidor quartet is made up with movies for which one must have a special taste, or at least be in a special mood, which means that only auteurists more rigid than I will ever call them great. Though one does come out of them all wanting to yak after spending 90 minutes or more (and in Duel’s case, a lot more) on a trek into places where angels fear to tread.

Actually, Ruby clocks in at a suspicious 82, sloppily held together by its weakest feature: a clunky, spoon-fed narration by a newcomer Yankee doctor played by Bernard Phillips, a familiar-face actor who later became slightly better known as Barney (as in The Sand Pebbles). Yankees are held with suspicion in the movie’s “Carolina” setting — which, unless I missed it, isn’t specified as either North nor South, possibly because the coastal burg that backdrops Vidor’s wall-to-wall lurid heavy breathing isn’t the stuff of chamber of commerce brochures. The provincialism also extends more than even normally to the social-class snobbery toward the less pedigreed of its citizens, for which Ruby (Jennifer Jones) is the poster sex-bomb. Her prowess with a rifle would look good in NRA literature but not at the local country club’s Julep Hour, where she lack the essential cotillion gene. Unfortunately, Ruby’s longtime lust object Boake Tackman (Charlton Heston in just his fourth Hollywood feature) is part of this very set — which isn’t to imply that he’s against fooling around with her in his convertible (Cadillacs are practically supporting cast players here) or in secluded marshes far away from the 19th hole.

As with Duel, this is another movie in which Vidor — probably taking a cue from Jones’s real-life husband David O. Selznick, who gets one of those amorphous “presentation” credits here — tried to turn her in to a sex bomb. This was a marketing attempt that never really came off, even though the actress certainly had the looks to make one consider the possibility (maybe it was a slight lisp). Not un-alluringly photographed in Russell Harlan’s best nocturnal doorway shadows to resemble the cover art in the kind of certain trashy, down-and-dirty paperbacks I used to sneak-read as a kid, Jones-as-Ruby, turns out, is more natural as the hunter-shooter-boat-pilot she mostly is during daylight hours. He frustrating truth is that no one quite knew what to do with her in this period when David O. Svengali was probably telling her what brand of toothpaste to use — and who would have thought that her best role of this period would be in John Huston’s eccentric-plus Beat the Devil? But this said, Jones is, overall, a major plus here and probably the No. 1 thing Ruby has going for it — especially when the movie becomes something of a love triangle and, in particular, a revenge piece after the character’s social fortunes change.

It’s fun, at least mild fun, seeing Heston in those early roles where he played standard humans and not someone always hauling around Tablets. Heston was only four years younger than Jones in real life, which means there isn’t nearly the age differential I assumed. And if there really have to be movies where the main male character is named “Boake,” you have to say that Boakes were a lot more grounded in Chuck’s wheelhouse more than they would have been in, say, Clifton Webb’s.

Despite the moniker, Heston is kind of a normal character here (something of a crud, but normal) — which is more than you say for her brother, played by that specialist in twisted rural creeps: James Anderson. In real life, he was the brother of actress Mary Anderson, who played the cute nurse in Hitchcock’s Lifeboat before curtailing her career after marrying four-time Oscar-winning cinematographer Leon Shamroy (who shot both The Robe and The Girl Can’t Help It for a full career right there). James is best known for later playing the main heavy and Atticus Finch adversary in the movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird, and I’m pretty certain I recall Gregory Peck saying in a Mockingbird doc that Anderson didn’t like him personally. Uh, not like Gregory Peck? So if I’m recalling this right, Anderson must have come naturally to the posterior boil he has here — shouting the Gospel, strumming a guitar around the house, repressing homicidal thoughts and, to give him needed points, being right when he warns Ruby about trying to get above her social station.

Released in limited fashion as a so-called prestige project on Christmas Day of ’52 for apparent Oscar consideraton, Ruby was an independent project co-produced by Vidor and distributed by 20th Century-Fox, though I’ve never seen it shown (going back several decades) with a Fox logo. We’ve all seen too many prints of vintage indies that look as if the original negatives were stored in some Mojave-based UPS box — but except for some significant image specking on a light visual background (during a key scene, alas) that looks a little like microbes under a microscope, this is a cleaner and also sharper-looking copy than I expected to see.

Andrew Sarris suggested in The American Cinema that Vidor was a greater director of individual scenes than sustained movies, and there are redeeming bits here and there that transcend what is at heart an amusingly trashy time at the movies — one of them a honey where Boake’s convertible speeds along the beach and into the surf (in a floating manner that would worry me) so that the lovers can do what lovers do to relax Boake’s golf putting finesse on the club links. One major bonus here is the backdrop theme (“Ruby”), which became a significant harmonica hit for Richard Hayman in spring of ’53. Later, after lyrics were added, Ray Charles made it his own around Christmas of ’60 for one of his most indelible recordings.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Ruby Gentry’ and ‘Madigan’