Jules Dassin | John Cromwell | Crane Wilbur | Edward Buzzell | George Amy | Frank McDonald

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Jules Dassin

The Naked City

Dassin's The Naked City (1948) deviates in several ways from the Henry Hathaway tradition. For one thing, it is a whodunit mystery. In most of the Hathaway school, the villain is a well defined organization or individual. There are mysteries in Hathaway sometimes: who is the top dog whose shoes are only seen throughout most of The House on 92nd Street, for example. Still, even in that film, the gang of Nazi spies is perfectly well known to the audience. By contrast, Dassin's film keeps the audience guessing. It follows mystery film traditions. It has an extraordinarily complex script, with new layers of truth that keep getting peeled away and revealed.

Everything in Dassin's film is much more "ordinary" than in the Hathaway series, too. It is ordinary in two ways: the villain in the Dassin is not some superman or superorganization of crime, unlike most Hathaway school films. No, the villain is just some ordinary murderer. Secondly, the police are not shown as some extraordinary, high tech institution. The film focuses on a real group, the New York City police, but they are lacking in the military discipline, inhuman efficiency and high tech skills of the cops in the previous Hathaway school films. They are shown as a collection of shrewd, honest, but much more human people. The police tend to be married, and have functioning bonds with women. No one's closest relationship is with a partner. No one on the police seems to be deep in military discipline as a life style.

Shots in The Naked City include the mirrors and staircases so familiar in the films of Fritz Lang, and which spread from him to film noir as a whole. The villain's room at the end contains both a mirror, used for many shots, and a window through which we get a deep focus exterior of the New York streets. Even in interiors we see the city. Later, we get a shot straight down the staircase in the villain's building. Once on the streets, the shop windows are treated as "mirrors", so we see both what they contain, and the reflections of the street in the glass. Such reflection shots are popular in poetic documentary and city symphonies, from Dziga Vertov's The Man With a Movie Camera (1929) to Stan Brakhage's Wonder Ring (1955).

The Naked City has astonishing photography of New York City. Cinematographer William Daniels won an Oscar. The photography reaches its peak during the great climax on the Williamsburg bridge. This is in the semi-doc tradition of finales on great industrial or engineering structures.

The streets of New York virtually explode with life here. The finale is full of children playing, including the little girls skipping rope that used to be such a feature of American life.

Brute Force

Dassin's Brute Force (1947) reveals the direct influence of Roberto Rossellini's Open City (1945). The dictatorial prison in Brute Force recalls the horrors of Nazi occupied Italy. It is somewhat less plausible than in the original. After all, the people in Open City are just innocent civilians, whereas the convicts in Brute Force are all criminals. Depicting them, as Dassin does, as just a swell bunch of ordinary guys, seems fairly unbelievable. The blow torch scene in Brute Force also invokes the one in Open City.

Night and the City

Night and the City (1950) seems like a minor work to me. This is partly because the characters seem so nasty and unappealing. Also, I wished for a view of London on the same scale as the portrait of New York in The Naked City, but it didn't happen.

There are thematic links back to the previous work. Here the hero is a cheap but smooth talking hustler: just like the Howard Duff character in the earlier film. And Night and the City takes place in the world of wrestling: another villain in The Naked City was a wrestler, and makes some pointed remarks about that profession, as well as essentially "wrestling" with one of the cops during a big struggle. Far and away the best scene in Night and the City is the impromptu wrestling match. The film comes astonishingly alive at this point, in a way it didn't before.


John Cromwell

The Racket

John Cromwell's The Racket (1951) has some features in common with the semi-documentaries. It has policemen heroes. The film emphasizes their military discipline. It has a gang of villains. The villains are ruthless, well organized, and have much social power. One big difference from the semi-docs: no one actually goes undercover.

The Racket has been around for a long time. It started life as a play, then was made into a 1928 film, directed by Lewis Milestone. In the 1920's, it would have been considered a "gangster film"; here it is refurbished in the early 1950's as a "film noir". Both versions had Howard Hughes involved as a producer. The 1928 version starred a youthful Helen Hayes as the heroine. Milestone's films also are full of social protest. His The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946) also centers on the intersection between business, corruption and civic power, with the lines between all of these institutions becoming deeply blurred.

The Racket has elements that anticipate Fritz Lang's later The Big Sleep (1953). Its embattled police hero going after powerful mobsters is similar to the later film. So is some of the violence in the picture. The character played by Lizabeth Scott, an underworld girl friend who later turns state's evidence, also anticipates Gloria Grahame's character in Lang's film.

Costumes and Civic Corruption

The costumes of the police and bad guys have a similar iconography with the semi-docs: the gangsters are in exceptionally smart but flashy clothes; the police are plainly dressed when they wear civilian clothes, but they have sharp uniforms.

Robert Ryan plays an out of control, violent gangster of the old school. His clothes are spectacular: he is completely uninhibited about flash, and is always dressed to the teeth. His dressing gown is one of the most elaborate in film history, and his later pin stripe suit is almost as dramatic. One wonders if men in the early 1950's really dressed this way, or if his clothes have been heightened for the movie screen. The film's costume designer, Michael Woulfe, made a major contribution to its ambiance.

The smooth mobster played by Don Porter is also well done in terms of clothes and accouterments. Porter's character is supposed to represent a new generation of organized crime in America, one that runs crime as a sophisticated, well organized business. The mob has disguised Porter as a business executive. He has a spectacular executive office, that looks like all the new command centers of the newly affluent 1950's corporate America. It has a huge wooden desk for Porter, elegant leather furniture, and is located high in an office building overlooking the city he "runs", to quote the film. Porter is always superbly well dressed, in a series of double breasted suits. He looks like an affluent businessman, suave and powerful. All his stationary states that he is the Chief Executive Officer of various respectable sounding corporations. While he always looks extraordinarily affluent, he never seems other than utterly respectable, a member of the upper middle class. Unlike Ryan, who looks like a mobster, Porter looks like a social leader, someone who represents the monied element in town. We have said that Porter is disguised as a businessman, but in fact, we never see any honest businessmen in the movie. Perhaps all the businesses in this city are as mob controlled as this one.

Cromwell's film noirs tend to deal with civic corruption. The villains in them are not merely gangs, unlike the other semi-docs. They are gangs that have usurped civic power. The fight against them is also a fight against corrupt authority. There is an element of social protest in these films. Cromwell's historical drama, Son of Fury (1942), also deals in similar themes, even though it takes place in 18th Century England: here wicked aristocrat George Sanders has cheated poor Tyrone Power.

Architecture

Porter's office is open in its design, high above the city, and with a clear view through its windows of an equally open parking lot below.

By contrast, the police station is a warren of turning corridors. Rooms open into other rooms. There are no clear lines of sight, and finding one's way around in this maze must be a challenge. It has little view of the outside world, and seems like a chthonic burrow compared to Porter's command tower. While everything in Porter's office is brand new, up to date, and redolent of the 1950's affluence of corporate America, the police station is a relic survivor of earlier times.

One scene shows Mitchum's introduction to his men, just after being transferred there as the new Captain of the precinct. The uniformed men are lined up with military precision, just as in such contemporary war movies as Twelve O'Clock High (1949). However, the corridors of the police station are too short to contain them all in one straight line, so they are bent 90 degrees around a corner in their lineup. It is a vivid visual metaphor for the limitations civic corruption places on honest cop Mitchum. Just as he has to cope with the confining precinct building in his attempt to run his squad, so too does he have to cope with corrupt superiors in city government who do not want the mob investigated.


Crane Wilbur

Canon City

Crane Wilbur's Canon City (1948) is an atypical member of the semi-documentary school. Most semi-docs focus on government agents fighting crime, often undercover. By contrast, Canon City shows the story of a prison break. The leads are the convicts planning the break, with little emphasis on any government men or police.

A Documentary and Fiction Mix

The documentary elements here are strong: the film recreates a real life prison break of December 30, 1947, and is shot on the actual locations of the events it depicts, at the Colorado State Penitentiary and surrounding locales in Canon City, Colorado. The warden of the prison plays himself, and many of the prisoners shown in the film are actual inmates of the prison - something that legal issues would surely prevent today.

The mini-documentaries in the film are far and away its best parts. The film opens with an extended documentary about the city and the prison. This has interest as a time capsule of another era. Both the warden and the prisoners talk directly to the camera, telling their real life stories. This reminds one of the opening of Phil Karlson's Phenix City Story (1955), a film to which Crane Wilbur contributed as a scriptwriter, although that film's opening documentary sequence is much longer, as well as more clearly delimited from the fiction film that follows it.

After the prison break halfway through the movie, there is another brief, interesting documentary look at the town.

Finally, one episode later shows the funicular near the city, reminding one of the industrial finales of many semi-docs - although it surprisingly turns out not to be the actual finale of the picture, breaking all semi-documentary tradition.

An Unusual Narrator

The narrator of the film starts out as a pure voice over, in standard film tradition. Suddenly, in the scene at the warden's office, we are given to understand that he is an actual if unseen person, physically present with the warden in his office. The warden even shakes hands with him, reaching off screen and shaking. The tone of his voice does not change, however. The warden's voice is recorded live, while the narrator is still plainly doing a voice over. It is a strange effect, and unintentionally zany. It reminds one of all the gags about the narrator in George of the Jungle (1997). The narrator is Reed Hadley, whose ringing masculine tones were virtually de rigeur in 1940's semi-doc narrations, especially those of Henry Hathaway and Anthony Mann. This adds to the oddness of the effect.

The Rest of the Film

The dramatic aspects of this film are zero. Since these dramatic scenes form perhaps 80% of the picture, the film is terribly rough sledding, and is definitely not recommended. The film suffers from its lack of sympathetic characters or goals. I've never liked Crane Wilbur as a director, finding his work hopelessly stiff, dull and lifeless. He is inoffensive. His concerns about prisoner rehabilitation are humane and deserve commendation.

Edward Buzzell

The Get-Away

The Get-Away (1941) is a crime thriller from the dawn of the film-noir era. While this film is completely forgotten in film history, it is surprisingly entertaining and exciting. It has a plot that anticipates the undercover cop pictures of the late 1940's. Here a policeman is sent in undercover to a prison, where he is instructed to make friends with a gang of robbers. Eventually he falls in love with the gang leader's sister (Donna Reed in one of her most sincere performances), jeopardizing his mission. The film is fast moving; only parts take place in prison, it includes many other kinds of police versus criminal adventure elements.

The film has some similarities to Tear Gas Squad (1940). Both of these early films have plenty of exciting adventure. Both have a major raid on a gang hideout as a big climactic scene. Both are about very young officers, on early cases. Both initially do things that cause their superior officers to disapprove of them. Both then make an extra, heroic effort, and manage to bring in the bad guys after all. The issues they face are simpler than those of such noir era films as T-Men (1947). The biggest problem either one could have is not doing a good job. Once they succeed with their arrests, everything is fine. By contrast, the hero of T-Men has to watch his partner be murdered before his eyes; he is almost killed himself. Pleasing authority figures is not the key issue in his world. One of the later scenes in The Get-Away does have a noir like moral complexity, when the hero's boss pits him against the heroine.

Is The Get-Away a film noir? Should it can be considered as a very late gangster film instead? While the criminals here form a gang, they do not rule a city the way the early 1930's gangsters of Little Caesar and Public Enemy did. Instead, they are a gang of thieves who hide out in obscurity, only coming out in public to commit their crimes. This is closer to the role of gangs of crooks in film noir.

In addition, there are some noir like elements. The hero is dressed to the teeth in the sharp suits of the 1940's; so are the other detectives. These are some of the best dressed figures in any crime film. This sort of urban polish strongly recalls film noir, which takes place in an urban paradise. Such urban scenes as the dance hall where the finale occurs also have a noir like feel. Many key scenes take place at night. The personal involvement of the hero with the gang leader's sister also involves a noir like intensity of feeling.


George Amy

Gambling on the High Seas

Gambling on the High Seas (1940) is a remake of William Keighley's Special Agent (1935), one of several films Keighley did about undercover agents infiltrating mobsters. The original had newsman George Brent, mobster's secretary Bette Davis, and mobster Ricardo Cortez; this remake has Wayne Morris, Jane Wyman and Gilbert Roland in the same roles.

When one thinks of crusading newspapermen in the movies, the name of Wayne Morris does not immediately spring to mind. Morris specialized in roles where his young man was essentially a big, playful, overgrown kid. He was always a nice guy, a bit of a rough neck, and full of goofy, good-natured boyish charm. The film makers have done everything to tailor this role for Morris. They have tried both to preserve his on-screen personality, and to make him believable as a reporter. His boyish enthusiasm is now directed to his reporting job: he can't wait to jump on a story, follow up a lead, accompany an arrest, or phone in a hot breaking story. He does all this as if he were a kid with a new set of toys. Such enthusiasm fits in with Warner Brothers' gung-ho approach to melodrama, as well. Morris is also frequently shown with a typewriter or a camera, and his boss on the paper expresses admiration and total support for him. Movie editors tended to be gruff and condemnatory, at least to traditional screen reporters like Pat O'Brien or Lee Tracy, but here the filmmakers clearly thought his boss' approval might help give Morris credibility as a reporter.

Costume designer Milo Anderson, always a specialist in making male stars glamorous, has given Morris a ton of sharp suits. They are always quite dressy, being double-breasted or pin striped or both. They give Morris a bit more of a grown up or responsible look than he sometimes had in films, without sacrificing glamour. Morris usually keeps his hat on, the standard movie shorthand for "reporter" in that era. Morris never appears in a tux, even when the mobsters on the gambling ship are decked out in them. He always sticks to his suit and hat, clothes that are the professional requirements for a reporter. Anderson has not stinted: Morris seems to change his suit every few minutes for each new scene.

George Amy was a top editor at Warner Brothers who occasionally got a chance to direct. Terry Morse was also an editor who occasionally directed; clearly, editors had a chance for this sort of job opportunity at Warner Brothers.


Frank McDonald

Frank McDonald was an extremely prolific director of Westerns, both in the movies and television. He occasionally did crime films as well, including adaptations of such hard-boiled writers as Frederick Nebel and Geoffrey Homes.

Gunfight at Comanche Creek

A Semi-documentary Western

Frank MacDonald's Gunfight at Comanche Creek (1963) is a late survival of the semi-documentary film in an odd genre: the Western movie. Like many semi-docs, this is a film about an undercover agent. But the whole plot has been transposed to a Western setting. The film's story is especially close to William Keighley's The Street With No Name (1948), but there are elements that recall Anthony Mann's T-Men (1947) as well. Perennial Western hero Audie Murphy plays a detective who goes undercover in a band of outlaws. This is the main plot idea of the two 1940's crime films. In Street, the gang recruited crooks to join their gang, then sometimes killed them if they became inconvenient or threatened their interests. The gang in Gunfight at Comanche Creek does this systematically: their whole modus operandi is to break crooks out of jail, exploit them as front men in robberies, then kill them and turn them in for the reward money.

Just as The Street With No Name took us inside the FBI, so does Comanche Creek give an inside view of the National Detective Agency, a fictitious private detective group located in Kansas. Both organizations are depicted as being full of trained, highly competent professionals, who have great espirit de corps. At the headquarters, agents of both organizations wear sharp, elegant suits. In the field, they dress like their surrounding environments: here the agents are in cowboy garb.

In both films, the undercover hero is assigned a second agent to watch over him, trail him, and to attempt to protect him from bad guys. This second agent is a major character in both works. He is also the ancestor of the Uncle Mike character in the 1980's TV series Wiseguy. In all three works, this agent uses the highest tech media of the day to stay in contact with the head office of the agency, functioning as the hero's life line to the home office. There are also pre-arranged ways for this guardian agent and the hero to surreptitiously communicate with each other. These have their ingenuity as well. In Comanche Creek these hero-guardian agent scenes also have their high tech flavor, and are some of the best scenes in the movie. I think such guardian characters fascinate us, because most of us would like to have someone looking after us. It's a big and frightening world, and some help from a guardian person would be very welcome. Also, they represent caring about other people and goodness. These guardian agents are the human equivalent of guardian angels.

Other elements that recall Street: a detailed narration, apparently by Reed Hadley, although I have been unable to confirm this through credits. Hadley was the authoritative sounding narrator of Street and other 1940's semi-docs. The narration starts right at the beginning of the film, and is full of facts about dates and places. This is similar to the fact-oriented narrators of the semi-docs.

Gunfight at Comanche Creek was written by Edward Bernds. Bernds was a prolific writer and director of low budget comedy films, including many of the Three Stooges' best shorts, such as Micro-Phonies (1945). Most of the plot ideas I've discussed above seem to be more a product of Bernds' script than McDonald's direction.

In one way this film is NOT like the earlier semi-docs: those were shot on real locations, and showed real institutions. This film's agency is fictitious, and there are no "real" locations to shoot. It is just as fictional as any other Western.

Design and Costumes: Two Eras

The movie looks and feels like a 1950's Western. This style of Western filmmaking was also on its last legs in 1964, and the film itself seems a bit old-fashioned for its era.

In the tradition of 1950's Westerns, this film has a beautiful color design. There are aqua railings, red walls, green tables, and vividly colored costumes, such as the bright blue satin dress worn by the heroine, and the aqua vest and green aprons worn by the croupiers. Virtually every wall and every piece of decor is painted some earth-tone like but intense color. These tones often have some bright color added to achieve maximum vividness: a gray wall will have a shade of blue mixed in it; bricks will be bright yellow. 1950's Westerns tried to take their viewers into a world that was a sea of bright color. Apparently, people tended to accept this, at least in the name of escapism. Many of today's Hollywood films seem so desaturated and colorless, by contrast.

In another way, the film seems ultra-modern, and very much part of the mid 1960's. The agency reminds one of the good guy spy organizations of the period, and the agents of James Bond. This is reinforced by having Audie Murphy's character being a great success with women, and having him being introduced in the film in bed with a woman. This is much more like James Bond than traditional Western heroes.

Because we first see the agents in sharp suits, when they later appear in cowboy clothes, the cowboy outfits seem more like costumes the agents are wearing for their undercover work, than expressions of their natural status as Western heroes. This is especially true of the guardian agent (played by Jan Merlin). The gray suit he wears at the opening seems like his natural garb. His cowboy clothes, which are a beautifully coordinated series of golds and light browns and yellows, seems like a disguise he is wearing. The cowboy costume is a little too fancy to be considered as authentic wear. He stands out from the crowds of people he meets out West. It is like he is wearing a special outfit, one designed to make him radiate color and light. The fact that he is playing an angel figure seems underscored by the luminous nature of his outfit.

The suits that the agents all wear back at agency headquarters are all color coordinated, in various shades of gray. They too seem like something the agents are wearing for deliberate effect. It makes them all look part of a team, as if they were a sports team all wearing identical clothes. The guys seem conscious of the effect they are creating, as if they are trying to look as sharp as possible. The suits seem oddly modern, very close to something that could be worn by contemporary, 1960's men on the street. They convey the sense that the detective agency is part of modern times. Together with its spy like features, this gives the agency a feel of something out of the 1960's. When the agents subsequently put on their cowboy clothes and go out West, the feel is as if they have stepped back into an earlier era of time.

The next year the TV series The Wild, Wild West would create a similar fusion of James Bond and the Western. Nearly all aspects of popular media in the mid-1960's were strongly influenced by the spy craze.

Locations

The film has some beautiful locations. Particularly outstanding, are the rock formations above the cabin wear the guardian agent waits. These are made into a series of fine shots. The great cinematographer Joseph Biroc does fine color work.