Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

You know you dig the olde-tymey movies, so let’s check some out!

After the Thin Man (1936). I had seen this some years ago, but I decided to watch it again, because it’s fun. Powell and Loy, who made 14 (!!!) movies together, have such delightful chemistry, and although they were subject to the Hays Code, they do such a good job of implying that they’re banging like kettle drums all the time (and Nora is pregnant at the end, so there’s that). The cast is terrific – Joseph Calleia as the smarmy nightclub owner, Penny Singleton as the innocent-looking singer who’s not as innocent as she appears, Alan Marshal as the caddish husband who gets what he deserves, Elissa Landi as Marshal’s put-upon wife, Jessie Ralph as Loy’s battleaxe aunt ripping through the scenery, George Zucco as Landi’s creepy (and possibly Nazi?) doctor, Sam Levene as the cop who just lets Powell do whatever he wants, and of course, Jimmy Stewart as the dude who really loves Landi. Stewart was 28, and his first full-length movie was in 1935 but this was already his 10th film (they cranked them out in those days!), and it’s fun seeing the star he’d become, because his “Jimmy Stewart” voice doesn’t match his baby-face looks. Powell and Loy have a blast, as Powell’s “sit around drinking until someone says something stupid” schtick works to perfection (he does a bit more work than that, but not much) and the killer is brought to justice. These movies are interesting because of the classism – Loy’s family looks down on Powell because he’s not upper crust, and Powell, despite his upper-class demeanor, knows a lot of seedy types in San Francisco’s lower levels. The movies are comedies, of course, and this angle isn’t pushed too hard, but it’s nice that it’s there. I haven’t seen the series past this movie, but I’ll have to get around to it eventually!

The Sea Wolf (1941). Edward G. Robinson is a force of nature in this movie, in which he stars as the title character, “Wolf” Larsen, the captain of a rag-tag crew of seal hunters who sets out from San Francisco in 1900 with three unlikely and somewhat unwelcome crew members – John Garfield is running from Johnny Law, so he signs up for the crew; Ida Lupino is also on the run from Johnny Law; and Alexander Knox, a writer who was on a ferry with Lupino that Larsen’s boat ran into, sinking it (to be fair to Larsen, it was foggy in the bay) – Knox and Lupino are rescued by the captain, but they soon figure out it might have been better to drown. Larsen is a complex character – he’s a tyrant, sure, and he does awful things and he’s on an illegal hunt (it’s not too big a spoiler, but he’s not exactly hunting seals), but he also has deep psychological trauma and he is physically impaired, and Robinson is marvelous conveying both his despicable side and his damaged side, so it’s hard to hate him completely. Knox becomes his right-hand man, to a degree, but that puts him in a morally compromised position, while Garfield becomes his nemesis, and the stage is set for a cataclysmic confrontation at the end of the movie. Apparently, they changed quite a bit from Jack London’s novel, but such is life. Robinson was shockingly never even nominated for an Oscar, but he’s always good, and he’s excellent in this. I’ve never been the biggest fan of Garfield – he seems a bit inert too often – but Lupino and Knox are very good, as is Gene Lockhart as the drunken doctor who gets a new lease on life when he saves Lupino’s life (Knox was nominated for Wilson in 1945, but Lupino also never got a nomination, even though she’s always been good in everything I’ve seen her in). Overall, this is a very good, dark and disturbing adventure – Michael Curtiz knew a thing or two about tortured anti-heroes/bad dudes – so it’s definitely something to check out if you have the chance.

Out of the Fog (1941). This is a weird movie, an early noir movie that doesn’t quite work, but it’s certainly not bad. It doesn’t make enough sense, which is why it doesn’t work – I know we always have to suspend our disbelief a little bit when we’re watching movies, but it’s a bit too much here. Thomas Mitchell and John Qualen play Brooklyn small business owners who like to fish at night, and one day John Garfield (him again!) shows up and starts extorting money from them. This is not a terrible scheme, but it feels like Garfield should work from some criminal organization, but he’s doing it all on his own, and it also feels like Mitchell and Qualen would be able to get the law on their side, but Garfield outsmarts them with, frankly, a ridiculous idea (although I suppose it’s the 1940s and things were different, law-wise, back then). So they scheme to kill him, but they don’t really have it in them. I don’t want to say what happens, but it seems that they make things a lot harder for themselves than they need to, which is just a way for the filmmakers (Anatole Litvak directed this) to build suspense. Meanwhile, Garfield is putting the moves on Mitchell’s daughter, who’s played by Ida Lupino (her again!). Lupino is dating an incredibly young-looking Eddie Albert (Albert was 35 at the time but looks 15 years younger), but Albert is boring, and Lupino wants excitement, and Garfield can give that to her. I get that, but she does find out that he’s extorting money from her father and that he’s threatening to burn his boat and cause him bodily harm, and she still wants to date him. Lupino isn’t presented as bad, just bored and yearning for a better life, and if the movie had done more with that and gotten into her character a bit more, it might have worked. Lupino sells it pretty well, but she still comes off as kind of a jerk, because Garfield is objectively a Bad Dude (and doesn’t really try to hide it). It’s just a weird, herky-jerky kind of movie, with a romance pasted onto a fairly standard crime drama – I guess Mitchell and Qualen, who were 49 and 42 at the time, were too old to put the butts in seats, so they needed some Lupino cheesecake! It doesn’t quite work, but it’s still not a terrible movie, and despite being filmed on sound stages, the scenery does really help set a creepy mood. (I also like that Bogart was up for Garfield’s role, but Lupino had worked with him in They Drive By Night and High Sierra and she didn’t like Bogart, and she was a bigger star at the time, so she nixed him. I like Lupino, but it’s strange to imagine a Hollywood where she was a bigger star than Bogart!)

Crossfire (1947). This is brisk (85 minutes or so) noir that doesn’t hold together too well, but isn’t terrible, either (it was nominated for Best Picture, so take my thoughts with a grain of salt, I guess). The first scene, in which a man is killed in a poorly-lit room, might be the best scene, cinematically, as we see shadows struggling on the wall, lights being knocked over and the room plunging into darkness, and then the corpse and the murderers (whose face we don’t see) leaving the room. It’s really well done, and it sets up the story well. The cops – embodied by Robert Young (the three leads in the movie are all named “Robert,” which is fun) – find out from the dead guy’s girlfriend that they were at a bar and some soldiers started talking to him. Lo and behold, Robert Ryan, one of the soldiers, shows up and tells them that he’s looking for his friend, Mitchell, whom they last saw at the apartment when they were hanging out with the dead man. Ryan thinks Mitchell might have killed the man, so he’s worried about him. Young heads to the barracks and meets a swooningly handsome Robert Mitchum (Mitchum was 29/30 when the movie was filmed and was probably at peak attractiveness), Mitchell’s roommate, who claims Mitchell couldn’t have killed the dude because he doesn’t have it in him … but maybe Mitchum doesn’t know him as well as he thinks? So everyone’s looking for Mitchell, and we get long flashbacks to what happened the previous night, but perhaps some of the people are lying? It’s pretty obvious what happened early on, so the trick isn’t who killed the man but how Young can prove it, and the story falls apart a bit when that happens, because the case really rests on nothing, yet good triumphs in the end. What makes the story compelling is that Samuels – the dead man – is Jewish, and it becomes clear he was killed in a hate crime, so Young gets to talk about anti-Semitism and how shitty it is. I know anti-Semitism was kind of the “go-to” prejudice back then because at least Jews kind of looked like us good WASPs, amirite?, but it still feels more progressive than 1947, so that’s nice. Plus, Gloria Grahame has a relatively small role as a dance-hall girl whom Mitchell hangs out with for a while, and she is fierce during her screen time, taking no shit from anyone yet showing how sad she is that she doesn’t have better opportunities in life (she got nominated for Best Supporting Actress, so I’m not the only one who thinks she was good in the part!). Young, Mitchum, and Ryan are quite good – Ryan is probably the best of the three, because he has more to do (and he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for the role) – and it’s a fairly interesting noir story … except, as I noted, when it starts to fall apart at the end. Oh well. Still pretty neat.

Johnny Belinda (1948). For the time, this is a shockingly frank movie, with Jane Wyman getting raped and no one pretending it’s anything other than that (although the fact that she keeps the baby produced by the rape seems a bit too idealistic) and the rapist actually getting punished, so there’s that. Wyman won Best Actress without saying one word (she’s deaf and mute), which is pretty impressive, and Lew Ayres, Charles Bickford, and Agnes Moorehead got nominations, while it was also nominated for Picture, Director, Screenplay, Cinematography, Art Direction, Editing, Music, and Sound. Phew! I haven’t seen The Naked City, which won for Cinematography, but this movie is shot beautifully, with Ted McCord making great use of the northern California landscape to turn it into a twisted, blasted version of Cape Breton Island. Ayres, the new doctor in town, teaches Wyman to use sign language and read lips, much to the amazement of Bickford (her father) and Moorehead (her aunt), but her newfound confidence and willingness to spruce herself up draws the attention of Stephen McNally, who plays the villain extremely well. He rapes her, but she pushes the memory out of her mind and decides to keep the baby, which leads to the community gossiping about it incessantly and eventually driving Ayres out of town (because they’re sure he’s the father) and ostracizing Wyman’s family. Jan Sterling plays McNally’s sweetheart, and she knows what he did, but will she confess, or will she keep quiet because she was in lust with Ayres and he rejected her, so screw him? Oh, the drama! Despite just a bit of “of the times” thinking, the movie feels more modern than a lot of movies of the time – Bickford gets mad at Wyman for getting pregnant, but only momentarily, and then he’s all about finding the rapist and punishing him; the gossiping, sadly, is still with us; Ayres quickly realizing that Wyman is not mentally deficient even if she can’t speak is refreshing, as is Ayres not immediately falling in love with Wyman (I mean, they eventually get together, but it’s a slow and more realistic process). Wyman beat Bergman, de Havilland, Dunne, and Stanwyck for the Oscar, which … dang, that’s a powerhouse of acting right there!

Flamingo Road (1949). Joan Crawford stars in this melodramatic noir movie, which Warner Bros. didn’t really want for her because she was 42 or so during filming and they thought she was too old. Foolish Jack Warner! I mean, Crawford had been nominated for an Oscar a year earlier, so it’s not like people didn’t want to see her, and, of course, actors – especially women – generally play characters younger than themselves once they reach an “old” age of, say 25. Crawford is terrific as a carnival dancer who decides to settle down in a small town (the state is never identified, but the book is set in Florida), but because she grabs the eye of the young deputy sheriff (Zachary Scott, who was a good 8 years younger than Crawford) and the town’s sheriff, played with delightfully low-key menace by Sydney Greenstreet, has high designs for Scott and doesn’t want him hanging around with this floozie, she becomes the target a smear campaign by Greenstreet which almost wrecks her life. People fall in and out of love very quickly in this movie – she and Scott dig each other after one or two dates, and once Scott throws her over and marries a respectable girl (so he can become a state senator), the state’s party boss, played by David Brian (also 8 years younger than Crawford), falls in love with her after she makes him breakfast (he passed out celebrating the election) and drives him to his workplace. They were fast falling in love back in the day, because you never knew when you’d drop dead of the lung cancer you surely had from smoking so many cigarettes! This is a bit ridiculous, although it’s certainly not bad. Crawford is all steely determination to make a stand in this town, Greenstreet is superb and oily as always, Brian is good as the man who dislikes the realities of politics but has no inclination to fight against them, and Scott does a good job as Greenstreet’s feckless puppet, who grows a spine far too late. Of course, class comes into the equation, as it always does in popular fiction, as so much of what drives Crawford in particular and everyone else in general is an overwhelming desire for more, which always leads to ruin. I was a bit disappointed that when Crawford decides she’s had enough of Greenstreet, she doesn’t do anything too intelligent and only gets through it because of luck, but that’s the way it is, I guess. It’s a pretty good movie, if you take some things with a grain of salt!

The File on Thelma Jordon (1949). This is apparently the final “noir” film of Robert Siodmak’s career, and it’s pretty good. The Queen of Noir, Barbara Stanwyck, stars of Thelma Jordon (why the wrong spelling?), who seeks out an investigator at the district attorney’s office to complain about attempted burglaries at her aunt’s house and finds instead Cleve Marshall (Cleve?), played by Wendell Corey, who’s the assistant DA. Corey is at the office because he doesn’t want to go home – his wife is too attached to her parents, her father doesn’t like Corey, and it’s his anniversary and they’re at the house when he just wants to celebrate alone with his wife. So he’s hanging around, and of course he thinks Stanwyck is the bee’s knees, so he goes out drinking with her and later kisses her, which she resists … but not too much, as it is, after all, a noir movie. Soon, they’re meeting surreptitiously, and Stanwyck reveals that she too is married, but she left the dude, and someone appears to be following them, and things are getting complicated. Then, when they’re about to go away for the weekend, Stanwyck’s aunt is shot and killed and her safe looted. The cops arrest Stanwyck immediately (it’s actually kind of funny how fast they conclude she did it), but Corey manages to get the case, and so he’s prosecuting his lover. Meanwhile, his wife (played with surprisingly little pathos by Joan Tetzel) has figured out that he’s having an affair, but she doesn’t know with whom. He claims he’s done with it and he wants to work on their marriage, but she doesn’t necessarily believe him. Stanwyck’s lawyer, played by Stanley Ridges, does a nice job, and there’s one terrific scene with Stanwyck where he does a marvelous job alluding to who her lover is and what that means for his case. It’s an interesting movie, because in most noir, we don’t get a courtroom drama, as the characters usually don’t last long enough to get to court. Plus, it’s unclear if Stanwyck is a true “femme fatale” – she doesn’t act like one, and we have no idea if she killed her aunt or someone else did until the very end of the movie. It’s more of a meditation on mid-life crises and the problems in a marriage than you expect, as Corey seems to have a good home life and he’s only out drinking because he doesn’t like his in-laws but he’s too chicken to say anything about it. He says he’s 35 (Corey was indeed 34/35 during the filming), but what’s very cool about the affair is that Stanwyck was, at this time, 41/42, so it’s not like Corey is chasing a young girl around (Thelma’s age is undetermined, so Stanwyck could be playing a younger woman, but like all good noir women, she doesn’t act young). As much as we think Cleve is a tool, Corey does play him with a kind of sadness at how his life has gone, so it’s impossible to hate him completely. Of course, there’s a good twist at the end, and because it’s the 1940s, moral judgment asserts itself, but until the rather silly ending, it’s a pretty neat noir film, with beautiful cinematography and some very good performances. Eddie Muller likes it, and so should you! (In a fun twist, Paul Kelly, who plays the investigator Stanwyck was looking for, spent two years in prison in the late 1920s for manslaughter. He killed the husband of a woman he was having an affair with, and she was also imprisoned as part of the scheme. She became a playwright, wrote a play about being in prison, which was later made into the movie Ladies They Talk About … which starred Barbara Stanwyck. Much later in life, Paul Kelly played the warden of San Quentin … where he had been imprisoned.)

Never fuck with Barbara Stanwyck!

The Flame and the Arrow (1950). I love old movies in which the actors make no effort to be “historical” – this movie is set in 12th-century Lombardy, and they cast Burt Lancaster … who plays it like a mid-century American who found a time travel machine and liked it in 12th-century Lombardy, so he stayed! Lancaster is Dardo, a hunter in the mountains who just wants to hunt with his son, but the evil German count takes the boy as a hostage (Lancaster’s wife left him for the count, but she pays for that at the end, when the dastardly count knifes her in the back) and Lancaster enlists his buddies to get him back, sparking a rebellion. It’s a fun romp, in other words, with only the vaguest relation to actual history. I mean, Frederick Barbarossa did invade Italy a lot and the Lombards were at the forefront of the resistance, but it was, of course, the nobles of Italy who resisted, not the peasants like Lancaster’s character, and in any case, eventually Frederick’s grandson, Frederick II, ruled over both Germany and most of Italy, but whatever – peasants fighting a douchebag count makes good copy! Lancaster is fine, Robert Douglas as the duplicitous Marchese is actually a very interesting character, Virginia Mayo is fine as the German countess who falls for Lancaster (although why the German state of Hesse is so important is a mystery, unless it’s so the filmmakers can call the Germans “Hessians” at times and link them to the American Revolution, thereby making American audiences more gung-ho about Lancaster’s rebellion), Norman Lloyd (who died two years ago at the age of 106) has fun as the troubador, and the action is nifty, and the sets are actually quite excellent – the castle in particular is very well done. It’s nothing spectacular, but it is a fun movie.

Mutiny on the Bounty (1962). I watched the 1930s version a few years ago, so now I have to watch the 1980s version and my “Bounty” watching will be complete! This isn’t as good as the 1930s version, mainly because Gable is better than Brando and Laughton is better than Trevor Howard, although Howard is pretty good. Brando’s decision to play Fletcher Christian as a dandy is just weird, and his detachment from the plight of the sailors until Howard turns his ire on him specifically feels like the wrong choice. Richard Harris as the focus of Howard’s tyranny is good, and the idyll in Tahiti is well done, but the entire movie does go on a bit long, and that’s even without Howard’s travels after Brando ditches him in the ocean (which the 1930s version included, and it made Bligh a more interesting character). It’s not a bad movie by any means (although it does sound like the actors all hated it as they were making it), but it does feel like it’s a missed opportunity. Brando is right on the cusp of being a true weirdo (I guess he always was, but he was able to show it more in this movie because of his stardom), and that doesn’t help, and the entire thing feels a bit perfunctory, which is frustrating. In the Gable/Laughton version, it feels like there’s a bit more drama, but in this one, it feels a bit like they’re going through the motions. I don’t know, it’s hard to describe. It’s a beautiful-looking movie (it was nominated for Cinematography, Art Direction, and Special Effects among others), and it’s interesting to watch (it’s about three hours long, though!), but it’s lacking something that would make it great. Oh well.

The Split (1968). After the ending of the Hays Code, Hollywood could start being a bit more radical, so here we have a heist movie that doesn’t end with everyone dead or in jail! Huzzah! This is based on a Donald Westlake book, and it didn’t do well at the box office, but it’s a perfectly serviceable heist movie. I like Jim Brown as an actor – he’s not great, but he’s so cool that he gets away with a lot of brooding looks, which go a long way in the movies I’ve seen with him in them – and he puts together a crew of Ernest Borgnine, Warren Oates, Jack Klugman, and Donald Sutherland to rob the box office of a Rams game while the game is going on. Julie Harris bankrolls them (I love older movies like this, where you know almost nothing about the characters’ pasts – we have no idea how Harris has the money to fund the heist, and Sutherland, for instance, seems like he has a pretty good set-up, so it’s unclear why he would risk it on a heist like this), Diahann Carroll is Brown’s on-again, off-again girl, and James Whitmore, whom everyone in my generation knows as Brooks from The Shawshank Redemption, plays Carroll’s way-too-creepy landlord. About 70 minutes in, Gene Hackman shows up as the detective in charge of figuring out the heist. The heist goes off well – the filmmakers used footage from two actual Rams games from 1967, although neither was a “playoff” as Harris tells Brown early on – and Brown stashes the money at Carroll’s apartment, which is when everything goes to shit, as you knew it would! This is a decent heist, although it gets kind of dark a few times (it was, apparently, the first movie ever rated “R” under the new standards), and the cast is neat. Brown dominates the proceedings, unsurprisingly, but Hackman has a crucial role, as well, while Brown’s gang doesn’t get too much to do, but because they’re played by good actors, they make good impressions (Sutherland, in particular, is always good as a charming-yet-creepy dude). It’s nothing spectacular, but I dig a good heist movie!

They don’t keep making old movies, but I’m going to keep watching them!


  1. fit2print

    Pardon the pedantry but I just wanted to point out that technically “The Split” is based on a novel by Richard Stark (yep, a pseudonym of Donald Westlake, so you weren’t wrong in saying it’s one of his books but still…).

    I’m throwing this out there only because there have been about eight (at last count) adaptations of Stark’s “Parker” novels – others include the Jason Statham pic with that title from a few years back and Mel Gibson’s “Payback” from the late 90s – so for completists (like yours truly) it might be useful to know “The Split” is part of the Parker film canon.

    As you suggest, the movie’s not exactly high art and has its flaws but it’s well worth a look for the cast alone. I’m glad you’re highlighting these sorts of classics on the site. It saddens me that, if they watch them at all, most people will end up watching on tiny screens instead of in repertory theatres where they belong, but since art houses are pretty much extinct or at least gravely endangered I suppose the fact that anyone is going to the trouble of seeing these flicks, full stop, has to be taken as a win, Keep on keepin on…

    1. Greg Burgas

      That’s a good point – I knew it’s technically a “Parker” movie (even though Statham is the only time he’s named “Parker”), but I just didn’t mention it. So yes, if anyone is a Parker completist, this is one of the movies to see!

      I’m just glad these movies are available, even if I can’t see them in the theater. There are so many interesting movies in the world that you rarely hear about, and I’m just trying to see as many as I can!

  2. All the Thin Man movies are worth seeing. Though I think Powell and Loy are even better in the screwball comedies Libeled Lady and I Love You Again.
    John Garfield’s a great tough-guy villain/antihero—Cagney without the Irish charm, he looks like he’d bust your face in just for the pleasure of it The boxing movie Body and Soul is his best, for my money.
    I don’t care for Wyman in Johnny Belinda at all — my memory (admittedly it may be subjective) is that she doesn’t act most of the movie, she just stares sadly into the camera, then cuts away. The Rosanne Arquette/Dennis Quaid TV version has way better performances. My sister played Belinda in my old community theater group. Every night after the first act ends with her being dragged down by the bad guy — screaming without no sound coming out — there’d be thirty seconds of silence before the applause started (what can I say? Tracy’s awesome).
    Lancaster’s two swashbucklers — this one and the awesome Crimson Pirate (https://frasersherman.com/2021/06/25/__trashed-4/) both end up with the oppressed people apparently declaring independence. As the book Swordsmen of the Screen points out, swashbucklers tend to be pro-monarchy: the problem is that a usurper’s on the throne or an evil vizier has misguided the ruler and all we need is the right person on the throne. Lancaster’s films are “throw the bums out!”

  3. Jeff Nettleton

    The only one I have actually watched out of this bunch is The Flame and the Arrow,, which is, essentially, a mash up of The Adventures of Robin Hood and William Tell. You skipped over that Burt works with his circus partner and old neighborhood friend Nick Cravat, who plays the mute sidekick, which he also did in The Crimson Pirate, Burt’s other great swashbuckler. Cravat had a heavy Brooklyn accent and the mute gag helped cover (not that it hurt Tony Curtis any, though he was better looking). Burt and Nick do their circus act, at one point, as they also did in The Crimson Pirate. I recommend the other film more, as it doesn’t try to swipe from other films and legends and it has more of a sense of fun to it all. Plus, you can see a young Christopher Lee, as an officer of the Guard and the goofiest revolutionary attack on film. Watching that film made me wish that Lancaster had played Captain America, as he was born for the role, physically and ideologically. There is a definite reason why his swashbucklers are more about tossing out rich, noble bums and less about restoring kings.

    I have the whole Thin Man collection, but have only watched the first (I know, I suck). Powell and Loy were one of the best screen couples, in any era.

    As for the name Cleve; it’s short for Cleveland. As in Cleveland Brand, brother of Boston “Deadman” Brand.

    Wait…Flamingo Road in 1949? Morgan Fairchild would have been just an embryo!

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