Sorry, Wrong Number (1948, Anatole Litvak)

Didn’t seem very noirish, nor very good, for at least the first half. Barbara Stanwyck (between Double Indemnity and The Furies) is at her least appealing as a spoiled invalid shouting into the telephone all day and night, and her husband Burt Lancaster (in his noir period, between The Killers and Criss Cross) barely appears. Eventually it all falls into place. She is even more spoiled than it first seemed, having stolen Burt away from his girlfriend, given him a meaningless job at her father’s chemical corporation, then fallen into a psychosomatic paralysis to keep him at home taking care of her. Burt is no jewel himself, attempting to break free of his father-in-law’s grasp by stealing chemical supplies and selling them to gangsters. The “wrong number” of the title is a call Stanwyck accidentally overhears at the start, two men plotting a murder – hers, on order of her husband, who tries to stop it at the last minute. Too late, and though I love Ms. Stanwyck, this was one movie in which I didn’t mind her getting killed.

Since the plot comes together in fragments from Stanwyck’s perspective, gathering backstory over phone calls as time ticks away, I was hoping for a flashback-within-a-flashback, and got one! Burt’s cutie ex (Ann Richards) is nice enough to try helping out, though her husband (Leif Erickson, the grinning would-be cop-killer in The Tall Target) is investigating Lancaster. I also liked meek scientist Evans (Harold Vermilyea of The Big Clock and Edge of Doom), Burt’s reluctant partner in crime, who manages to escape (but perhaps not for long, since the cops are closing in on Burt). The Franz Waxman score can best be characterized as loud.

Between this and The Snake Pit with Olivia de Havilland the same year, Litvak was on fire making popular pictures about mental women – unfortunately, his two stars’ oscar nominations cancelled each other out so the award went to Jane Wyman.

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Sorry, Wrong Number DVD

Double Indemnity (1944, Billy Wilder)

Now this is why I keep a movie journal – so I have to take the time to consider and remember what I’ve seen, so next year I’m not confusing Manoel on the Isle of Marvels with City of Pirates with Robinson Crusoe. I know I’ve seen Double Indemnity before, but last time shouldn’t even count, since I’d swear it was a Humphrey Bogart movie that involves some fictional law about not being able to prosecute someone twice for the same crime. Whoops, that was Double Jeopardy with Ashley Judd. Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed seeing it again, as they say, for the first time.

It’s really a perfect noir plot. Fred MacMurray is an upright insurance salesman, very close with his boss Edward G. Robinson (the year before he’d take center stage in Lang-noir Scarlet Street). They’re on the same side – Fred sells policies and Ed sniffs out fraudulent claims. But Fred’s head is turned by Barbara Stanwyck (also his costar in Remember the Night), trapped in a loveless marriage with a rich man. When she suggests taking out life insurance on her husband, Fred is immediately on to her. But instead of reporting her spouse-murdering desires, his own desire for her sucks him into the plot. Why not use his inside knowledge of life insurance mechanics to help her, gaining himself a rich and beautiful wife in the process?

Problems: first, Fred is spotted on the train pretending to be her husband (who was already killed a few minutes earlier, strangled in his car). Fred has a brief uncomfortable chat with Sturges regular Porter Hall, who turns out to have a great memory when he’s later interviewed by Robinson. Second, Fred underestimated Barbara, who is now trying to seduce the boyfriend of her dead husband’s daughter so that he’ll kill the daughter and tie up any loose ends. Confrontation: Fred and Barbara shoot each other, and Fred stumbles back to the office to tell the whole story into Robinson’s dictaphone, providing us with a narrator/framing device.

Nominated for every oscar but lost all to Going My Way, Gaslight and Laura. Shot by Preston Sturges’s cinematographer John Seitz. Based on an acclaimed novel by James Cain (Mildred Pierce, The Postman Always Rings Twice) and adapted by Wilder with the great Raymond Chandler (The Blue Dahlia).

R. Armstrong for Senses:

Subverting Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray’s audience-friendly personae, Double Indemnity used genre to comment upon a changing America. Revolving around the combative mating ritual of a larcenous insurance salesman and a bored brassy claimant, the exchanges are tough, vernacular and eventually brutal, echoing a war entering its final bloody stages and a burgeoning crisis in American sexual relations. Featuring a manipulative, sexual woman, and shot on LA locations employing chiaroscuro lighting, this archetypal film noir remains a masterpiece of fleet narrative and sociocultural resonance.

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Lady of Burlesque (1943, William A. Wellman)

Another in an unplanned series of taboo-breaking sexy movies from different time periods. This one is set in a burlesque theater and has sexy dancers being murdered by a g-string strangler. Must’ve been seriously hot stuff in the sexless 40′s. Katy and I had a hard time believing this was such a late Stanwyck film, coming after Remember the Night and Ball of Fire, because the print was in such rough shape it felt older. Backstage drama popping with fast-talking slang for the first half, becomes a slave to its murder-mystery plot by the end. Barbara Stanwyck ends up with a clown named Biff (Michael O’Shea of Fixed Bayonets). One of the girls appeared three years later in something called Queen of Burlesque, which also features strangled bodies found in trunks.

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Lady of Burlesque DVD

Remember the Night (1940, Mitchell Leisen)

Our second Barbara Stanwyck Christmas movie, and an improvement on Christmas in Connecticut. Moves along like a typical Hollywood holiday romance, but with some interesting twists from writer Preston Sturges (a few months before his directorial debut), which I’m surprised weren’t softened by rewrites. Even if the original script has actually been tamed down, you’ve still got romantic lead Barbara Stanwyck headed to prison at the end of the picture. It’s the morally upright ending, and I suppose the production code insists that she can’t get away with crime just because she’s in love.

Stanwyck is a thief, who steals because she wasn’t loved enough as a child and Fred MacMurray is the prosecuting attorney who schemes to delay her trial until after the holidays so the jury’s Christmastime sympathy doesn’t interfere with his case. But that leaves the sad, pretty girl in jail for Christmas, so Fred pays her bail for the week, but ends up with the girl in his apartment since the dirty-minded bailsman assumed that was Fred’s intent. And since she’s got no place to go, he takes her along home, getting in trouble with a rural farmer (John Wray) and getting frowned at by Stanwyck’s chilly mother (Georgia Caine, later a Sturges regular) at stops along the way. Inevitably they fall in love, then back at the trial she sees that he’s sneakily trying to get her acquitted so she pleads guilty, insisting that she serve her penance rather than turn them both into crooks.

Leisen is the filmmaker who frustrated Billy Wilder (Midnight) and Preston Sturges (Easy Living) into directing their own scripts. I still don’t have any problem with him. Maybe Sturges wanted a lighter touch or a snappier pace. Surely he could’ve done more with the comic cow-milking scene than Leisen did, but it’s a solid movie. Aha, from Wikipedia:

Director Mitchell Leisen, a rare director to come out of costume design and art direction, is reported to have shortened Sturges’ script considerably, both before and during shooting, something which generally annoyed Sturges. Leisen’s alterations to the script changed the focus of the film from MacMurray’s character to Stanwyck’s. Sturges summarized the film by saying “Love reformed her and corrupted him.”

Film Forum calls it a screwball comedy, but I don’t think you can just slap that term onto anything with Sturges’s name on it. In his 50′s, wholesome-looking MacMurray starred in three live-action Disney films, beloved to Katy but which I never watched. Must see him in The Egg and I with Claudette Colbert and There’s Always Tomorrow with Stanwyck sometime.

At Fred’s house: Sterling Holloway, a Disney voice actor, most notably as Winnie the Pooh. Not sure if that’s his voice singing the solemn “End of a Perfect Day” while Stanwyck plays piano, but it’s the most surprising moment in the movie:

MacMurray with the vaguely recognizable Beulah Bondi at left – mother in Track of the Cat, the wife’s tutor in Baron of Arizona, Stewart’s mom in It’s a Wonderful Life – and Elizabeth Patterson standing up – an aunt-type who also played aunts in Love Me Tonight, Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife, The Cat and the Canary and Hail the Conquering Hero.

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Remember the Night DVD

The Furies (1950, Anthony Mann)

Walter Huston (John’s father, in his final role) is a slightly less grotesquely comic version of Egbert in Ruggles of Red Gap, a rich, eccentric cowboy. His extremely strong-willed but beloved daughter Barbara Stanwyck (soon before Clash By Night) argues with him over practically everything, finally scheming to swindle him out of his land as revenge for an argument taken too far. She has a brother (John Bromfield) who is introduced at the beginning but practically disappears from the movie, since he’s a decent, unassuming fellow and Stanwyck and Huston are commanding our attention at all times.

Complicated, exquisitely shot and acted movie, obviously based on a novel (I can’t explain – it just smells novelistic). Stanwyck and Huston have a near-incestual rivalry. She loves Juan (Gilbert Roland, who played bandit The Cisco Kid in six movies) who lives illegally on Huston’s land, and Huston marries gold digger Flo (Judith Anderson, sinister housekeeper in Rebecca). But after Stanwyck stabs her new stepmother in the face with scissors (!), Huston has Juan killed. Katy and I lost track of exactly how Stanwyck then claimed possession of her father’s land. She cozied up to rich gambler Rip (Wendell Corey, Janet Leigh’s dull boyfriend in Holiday Affair) then bought up her father’s outstanding I.O.U.s around the country and used those as payment when he sold off his animals, but then how did that prevent the bank from repossessing the land?

This is the first movie I’ve seen by Mann, who made three other movies in 1950, at least two of them considered great classics. That’s just how it used to work.

R. Wood for Criterion:

All of Mann’s westerns—unlike, for example, John Ford’s—suggest deep psychological disturbance, but those currents never again manifest themselves as blatantly and explicitly as they do in The Furies. Mann’s westerns … show little interest in history or in mythology; they are grounded in a fallen world of existential struggle in which the villains often become the heroes’ dark shadows. Typically, when he shoots down his enemy, the Mann hero experiences not triumph but exhaustion, almost prostration, as if he had forfeited a part of himself, his manhood.

Ball of Fire (1941, Howard Hawks)

Felt slightly long and slow and full of old men for a Hawks movie. Gary Cooper is a hunky young encyclopedia writer locked in a house with his coworkers (including “Cuddles” Sakall). Barbara Stanwyck is the ball of fire who hides out with them on the pretense of helping with an entry on slang, hiding out from her gangster boyfriend (young Dana Andrews, star of one of my least-favorite Fritz Lang movies).

Mostly fun to watch for the language. Written by Billy Wilder and Lubitsch vet/future Sunset Blvd. collaborator Charles Brackett. Same cinematographer as Citizen Kane, the same year. Remade in ’48 with Danny Kaye in the Gary Cooper part, Virginia Mayo as Barbara Stanwyck and Louis Armstrong as Cuddles Sakall.

The internet likes to say the encyclopedaeists were inspired by Snow White’s seven dwarfs, and so here’s me on the internet faithfully repeating it.

Three Post-War Christmas Movies on TCM

Three movies that I’ve never heard of, all Christmastime classics if Robert Osborne is to be believed. Nice to see Primal’s new open (featuring myself) introducing them.

The Bishop’s Wife (1947, Henry Koster)

Robert Osbourne tells us before every single movie on TCM that the studio wanted to get Cary Grant. With every 1947 picture to choose from, you’d think he could’ve livened up Unfaithfully Yours, starred in Moonrise or cameoed in Key Largo, but instead he did this inert religious drama with David Niven (a year after Niven appeared in P&P’s probably much better angel drama A Matter of Life and Death). Niven is a bishop with pretty wife Loretta Young (of Man’s Castle, also costarred with Niven in Eternally Yours). She misses doing nice romantic things with her husband, going out to eat, seeing old friends, so when actual angel Grant shows up, in addition to helping the bishop with his church work, he starts treating the wife right and falling in love with her. In the end it turns out he’s sabotaging Niven’s attempt to build a grand cathedral, and getting the lead sponsor (Gladys Cooper, Henry’s society mom in My Fair Lady) to invest in smaller, less gaudy charities instead. A real rogue prankster of an angel, he also inspires their lonely professor friend to start writing his long-delayed history book and gives him an infinite bottle of port.

Nominated for best picture and director, but twice beaten by Elia Kazan’s important issues drama. From the director of Harvey, another movie with a Hitchcock star and an imaginary friend. Movie seems to rely entirely on Grant and a few “miracle” fx tricks for charm, otherwise full of draggy scenes and dull dialogue.

Christmas In Connectitut (1945, Peter Godfrey)

Another romantic comedy based on a Big Lie, Barbara Stanwyck (post Lady Eve and Double Indemnity, lacking the fire and energy of either of those) writes a newspaper column where she’s a perfect CT housewife and mother full of amazing recipes. Her editor (Casablanca’s Sydney Greenstreet, big guy) invites himself over for Christmas, so she fakes it by borrowing a house and a baby from a dapper dullard (Reginald Gardiner of The Great Dictator) and inviting her master chef buddy Felix (Hungarian Cuddles Sakall, also in Casablanca). Also over for dinner is hot young WWII hero Dennis Morgan (of Affectionately Yours & The Return of Doctor X), who makes his desire for Stanwyck and her fake life known by meddling in simply everything and being overall a nuisance houseguest. It’s all seen as good and romantic though – after all, a guy who enjoys changing diapers is a real catch – and after the Lie falls apart, Barbara barely avoids marrying the dullard and snags Dennis instead.

Director Godfrey made a nazi shock drama starring Peter Lorre the same year. Despite having the least interesting plot of the three movies, this was the best written, and Cuddles Sakall steals every scene he’s in, very friendly to everyone except the big boss, whom he calls “fat man”, conspiring to ruin Barbara’s secret wedding to the dullard so she can end up with our hero.

Holiday Affair (1950, Don Hartman)

This one raises the stakes a little. Janet Leigh, just two years into her film career, has a real kid (not fake babies like Barbara Stanwyck), and a real threat to her happy, stable relationship (not a horny angel like Cary Grant) in the form of noir hero Robert Mitchum. Working as a secret comparison-shopper for a rival department store, she accidentally gets Mitchum fired. Forced into near homelessness without a job, he doesn’t whine about it, instead takes the opportunity to stalk Janet before departing to pursue his dream job of building sailboats. Janet tries to convince herself she’s happy with her extremely boring long-term guy (Wendell Corey, Stewart’s buddy in Rear Window, costar of The Furies), whom her little boy dislikes, but eventually she falls for our Mitchum. There’s some junk about an overpriced toy train which she buys for her store, then returns, then he buys for the boy, then the boy returns to give the money back to Mitchum when he finds out Mitchum is broke. It’d be a decent subplot if the kid himself (also in The Narrow Margin a few years later) hadn’t been unbearably crappy.

Don Hartman was writing Hope/Crosby Road movies before he followed Preston Sturges into directing. This was the middle of his five-year directing career. No word what he did after (besides die in 1958). Movie is full of arbitrarily placed mirrors and stupid framing (there’s a joke about a girl roller-skating on the ice rink, but her skates are blocked from view by a park bench), but is pretty watchable just for our two stars.

All three movies got 1990′s remakes: Holiday Affair made for TV from the director of Police Academy 5Bishop’s (Preacher’s) Wife from Penny Marshall starring Denzel and Whitney… and Xmas in CT from director Arnold Schwarzenegger (his only film) with a cast too baffling to list (plus a rumored 2009 remake with Jenn. Garner).