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Double Feature: “Dead End” (1937), “The African Queen” (1951)

“Dead End”
Starring Humphrey Bogart, Sylvia Sidney, Joel McCrea, Billy Halop, Allen Jenkins

Sidney Kingsley’s “Dead End” offered a different look at gangland in the ’30s, and so it is with William Wyler’s gritty film adaptation. Wyler’s work does not show the daily tasks, murderous and mundane, of a gangster. Instead, “Dead End” details the two critical parts of the lifestyle: the beginning and the end. Neither one is attractive. At the beginning end of the spectrum is Tommy (Billy Hallop), a ringleader in his East Side slum gang known as The Dead End Kids. The name fits. Tommy lives in abject poverty with his sister Drina (an arresting Sylvia Sidney), who’s participating in a union strike in hopes of fairer wages. Drina gets a look at where Tommy could end up (if he’s lucky) when well-to-do famed Mafioso Babyface Martin (Humphrey Bogart) returns to his stomping grounds wearing a face altered by drastic plastic surgery. While Tommy’s just started down his path of violence, Babyface may have come to the end of his.

This is the intriguing dichotomy that Kingsley’s play sets up; however, it’s a bit simplistic to call “Dead End” a picture of haves vs. have nots. Tommy — like fellow Dead End Kids Dippy (Huntz Hall), Angel (Bobby Jordan), Spit (Leo Gorcey), T.B. (Gabriel Dell) — is miserably poor, but he has Drina there to defend him and bail him out. Babyface isn’t quite so lucky. He has his right-hand man Hunk (Allen Jenkins) and no one else. Gangsters don’t gain notoriety and status by trusting people; they do it by keeping the world at arm’s length. Babyface believes that because people in his circle fear, even revere him, the faces of his past will fall in line blindly, too. That is not to be. Bogart’s expressive face tells its own story, a story without a happy ending. The neighborhood he left behind is the same, but different in the ways that matter most to him. His mother doesn’t welcome him with open arms; she slaps him weakly and berates him, calling him a murder. His one-time dame Francey (Claire Trevor, heart-twisting in a tiny role) isn’t the tawny, slim beauty of his boyhood; she’s a haggard, sickly prostitute at the end of her rope. Used to getting exactly what he wants when he wants it, Babyface is ill-prepared to face grim reality … which is all Tommy and his friends have in the world.

There are other stories in “Dead End” — including the smaller thread about Drina’s love for her unemployed architect friend Dave (Joel McCrea), besotted with rich man’s mistress Kay (Wendy Barrie), and a new boy’s (Bernard Punsly) pitiful attempts to befriend The Dead End Kids — but none quite so arresting as those of Tommy and Babyface. Halop and Gorcey, in particular, set themselves apart from the gang; Gorcey’s Spit has the swagger, and Halop’s Tommy has the muscle. Gregg Toland’s cinematography complements the anxious and slightly elegaic atmosphere, the camera roving over the ramshackle dock, the shoddy, abandoned buildings and the dirty back alleys both Babyface and The Dead End Kids call home. The set feels intimate, and not necessarily in a good way: Everyone lives in everyone else’s back pocket, so the misery of hard times and poverty compounds exponentially. This is the slums at pavement level, the very bottom, and still there is a sliver of hope for the people who live there. They accept the limitations of the slums, while Babyface can’t let go of how things used to be.

Grade: A

~~~~~~~~~~

“The African Queen”
Starring Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn, Robert Morley, Peter Bull

Range is a precious commodity in Hollywood. Back in the ’40s and ’50s, when film noir ruled, it was especially precious. Films like “Dark Passage” and “”The Maltese Falcon” offered convincing evidence that maybe it was a commodity Humphrey Bogart didn’t have. Then in marched “In a Lonely Place,” helmed by Bogart’s nuanced, knock-’em-flat performance. But the true kicker, the real piece of dynamite, was John Huston’s “The African Queen” — not because it was dazzlingly original in plot or technique (it wasn’t) but because Bogart stepped out of character. It might be more accurate to say he leapt out of character, given how different the light-hearted Charlie Allnut was from the Sam Spades, Philip Marlowes and Rip Murdocks of his resume. Allnut’s all humor, no sardonic undercut, no dark subtext … which is surely what secured Bogart’s one and only Best Actor Oscar* (ripping it away from Brando, nominated for “A Streecar Named Desire”). Decades before Sean Penn’s win for “Milk,” there was “The African Queen.”

Oscar aside, there’s something disquieting about Humphrey “Here’s looking at you, kid” Bogart making like Otis the happy drunk on a ramshackle boat. But he plays the part well enough that once the shock fades out the goofy enjoyment sets in (provided viewers can swallow the loony plot about a tiny boat torpedoeing a giant German gunship). Bogart’s Charlie Allnut is the Canadian captain of small vessel The African Queen docked in German East Africa in 1914. His easygoing attitude and coarse manners horrify Rose Sayer (Katharine Hepburn) and her minister brother Samuel (Robert Morley), missionaries who have started a church nearby. The two ignore Charlie’s warnings that Germany and Britain are at war, and Rose finds herself alone and desperate after the Germans burn the village and Samuel succumbs to fever. Allnut’s return is her only shot at salvation, but she decides to elevate salvation into a revenge plot: She wants to turn The African Queen into a torpedo boat and ram it into the side of the Louisa. Steering through rapids gives her a taste for danger and adventure she’s never had before (the brush with death spawns one of the film’s funniest innuendo-laden lines: “I never dreamed that any mere physical experience could be so stimulating!”). Charlie quickly learns that Rose isn’t nearly the shrinking violent she looks to be.

Huston doesn’t much concern himself with crafting a believable tale in “The African Queen,” which would matter more if the Bogart-Hepburn union wasn’t a harmonious one. The actors have a solid odd-couple appeal that keeps things comical and light-hearted, just enough to balance the zaniness of Rose’s kamikaze scheme. They have the believable chemistry of two strangers thrown together by chance who build a relationship on their shared intense experience. There’s additional appeal in the fact that the heroes of “African Queen” aren’t young and impeccably coiffed and naïve, a welcome reminder that romance and adventure stop being fun after 25. Even as “The African Queen” sputters toward its perfectly ludicrous conclusion, Bogart and Hepburn keep the laughs — some silly, some poignant — coming. The characters bring out the best in each other, something only best romances accomplish.

Grade: B-

*The movie Bogie really deserved the Oscar for was “In a Lonely Place.”

Review: “Key Largo” (1948)

Frank McCloud (Humphrey Bogart) is through being a soldier. He’s settled into his new life as a drifter, moving from place to place in search of the odd jobs that finance his food, drink, lodging and cigarettes. Frank wants to put the war behind him, wants to make a career of laying low. But a bit of wrong-place/wrong-time bad luck forces his hand and drums into his head what he’s worked so hard to ignore: “When your head says one thing and your whole life says another, your head always loses.”

Bogart always could take a simple, unassuming line and give it the weary ring of gospel truth. His finest performances spring from characters who fail to bridge the gap between who they want to be and who they really are. In John Huston’s tense thriller “Key Largo,” Bogart’s tired but resilient ex-soldier is not alone in his ambivalence. The Key Largo hotel Frank has stopped in is populated with people who want something they can’t have or are afraid to want. Though they are the hostages of mobster Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson), they’re also hostages, in a way, to their own desires. There is Nora Temple (Lauren Bacall), whose late husband served in World War II with Frank. She feels an attraction to Frank she’d dare not voice; her eyes give away everything. There is James Temple (Lionel Barrymore), Nora’s ailing and crippled father-in-law, who wishes he was young and healthy enough to take down Rocco and his clowning goons. Saddest of all is Gaye Dawn (a gut-wrenching Claire Trevor), Johnny Rocco’s girl, formerly a hot-ticket lounge singer. When Johnny’s desire for her turned to disgust and cruelty, she turned to alcohol and checked out of reality. Gaye, more than anyone else, knows the burden of carrying the memory of the person you’ll never be again.

So “Key Largo” is a multi-layered character study where much of the action takes place in one location: James Temple’s hotel. The setting manufactures a feeling of claustrophobia that heightens the anxiety; the hurricane raging outside the hotel adds another level of menace. These elements, when mixed with Bogart’s increasingly unsuccessful attempts to seem impartial, ratchet up the tension further. While hostage situations lend themselves to that charged atmosphere naturally, Robinson’s bombastic, smirking performance as the entitled gangster helps things along. He doesn’t make his entrance — Johnny Rocco loves a grand entrance — until his lackeys, Curly (Thomas Gomez) and the wisecracking Toots (Harry Lewis), disarm the local sheriff (Monte Blue) and corral the hostages. Johnny intends to trade some counterfit bills and commandeer a boat so he and his crew can escape to Cuba. He’s supremely confident he will succeed: “I was too much for any big city police force to handle. It took the United States government to pin a rap on me. And they won’t make it stick.” He struts and preens, even tossing Frank a gun and trying to anger him into a shootout. Frank doesn’t nibble the bait, leaving us to wonder if he’ll choose inaction to the end.

Frank McCloud does not represent a new direction for Bogart, but somehow the actor makes the character’s troubles feel new. (That was Bogart’s way.) His slow-growing anger is a dynamite match for Robinson’s cocky, boastful energy, leading to a violent, nerve-wracking showdown that’s a game of cat and mouse. Johnny Rocco is a character, but as a criminal he’s no joke — his sing-for-a-drink treatment of his dame Gaye is purely sadistic, and that scene may be what snaps Frank to action. Or perhaps his motivation can be found in a quieter moment, bar none the most wrenching and beautiful shot I’ve ever seen. The camera moves in slowly toward Bogart, looking down at the sleeping Nora. He reaches out his hand gingerly and strokes her hair. He leaves his hand there. Seconds later, the camera catches him looking at Bacall — and oh, what a look. There’s more longing and romance in that look than can be found in volumes of Romantic poetry. It is a symphony of feeling, and it is the moment where he knows and we know that he can’t play cool anymore.

Grade: A

No. 37: “Chinatown” (1974)

Private detective Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) would have us believe that he’s unflappable, as arch as the one-liners he slings at his she-done-me-wrong clients and the cops who snub their noses at him. “You’re dumber than you think I think you are,” he cracks to Lt. Escobar (Perry Lopez). Comments like this might peg him as a real hardnose if not for his pesky moral code. He wants to ignore it, but he can’t, and it’s the reason he gets swept up in too many tangled stories that don’t end happily.

Truth be told, it is Gittes’ nagging conscience that makes “Chinatown,” Roman Polanski’s gorgeously shot, densely plotted love letter to film noir, more than just a rigorous exercise in mental gymnastics. The fact that this investigator, with his steely, seen-it-all eyes, can’t pull back emotionally from his cases separates him from the pack. That gets him in trouble often enough, and if not the curiosity shows up to finish the job. Since Gittes can’t leave a hunch unexamined, he’s intrigued when a woman (Diane Ladd) shows up in his office convinced her husband, Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling), chief engineer of L.A. Water and Power, is having an affair. Gittes decides to tail Mulwray and sees fresh water being dumped into the Pacific. Peculiar, since there’s a serious drought. Gittes snaps some money shots of Mulwray and his mistress, and when they wind up front-page news the second bomb drops. The real Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) barges into his office, and she’s understandably enraged that Gittes took the case under false pretenses. Gittes, in turn, is none too happy that he’s become someone’s puppet, and he’s hell-bent on finding out who’s pulling the strings.

There is more, much, much more, to “Chinatown” than this. Polanski’s twisty plot continues to uncoil itself slowly, almost languidly. From this point, we, like Gittes, sense that Evelyn is hiding something, possibly something sinister or shameful, and that this Mulwray scandal goes far deeper than the ocean the water’s been dumped into. When Mulwray’s body turns up, lungs filled with salt water even though he was pulled from a freshwater reservoir, that much is clear. Now there’s a scandal and a murder, and the cast of POIs expands to include Evelyn’s millionaire father Noah Cross (John Huston), a man who serves Gittes a head-on fish for lunch and reveals himself to be a man as menacing as he is rich. The pieces start to come together toward the end of Gittes’ topsy-turvy investigation. Or do they? Scriptwriter Robert Towne unloads not one but two shockers, both of which force us to double back and scrounge around for clues we missed. And that’s when we realize Gittes wasn’t the only one trapped in an unpredictable cat-and-mouse game.

Not many scripts can draw in viewers the way Towne’s does. This is complex, captivating writing that manages to keep us guessing until the final moments, and even when the answers are provided, they aren’t necessarily easy or satisfying. Every revelation here is hard-won. Somehow Towne also manages to capture the spirit of 1930s film noir, with its femme fatales (Dunaway in this case), terrible misdeeds of the past and how they infect the present, the detective who’s in over his head but won’t back down. It’s all there, and it’s all executed flawlessly.

“Chinatown,” however, isn’t just a masterpiece because of the script — Polanski’s direction, his keen eye for the shadows-and-fog atmosphere, that sense of weariness, is impressive in the way it recreates 1930s-era L.A. and does so in color, not black-and-white. Mastery exists in the performances of Huston, Dunaway and Nicholson. Huston, with his towering presence, exudes the effortless menace of a man unaccustomed to having his whims questioned; he dictates and it becomes so. Dunaway’s Evelyn is equal parts fragility and untapped rage; she is exactly as mysterious as she needs to be, and not a drop more. Nicholson’s Gittes is a character for the books. The actor hits a career best here, demonstrating cracks in the armor. He makes Gittes the moral compass and the heart of “Chinatown,” the kind of man who not only can’t forget what he’s seen but doesn’t want to.

Review: “The Maltese Falcon” (1941)

Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) is a consummate gumshoe. He has the ability to spot a liar from a mile away, and he knows he’s found one when Ruth Wonderly (Mary Astor) saunters through his door. He pegs her as trouble on a pair of stunning gams, but he cares more about her $200 than her honesty. In truth, her lies are what hold his interest. When she confesses her real name is Brigid O’Shaughnessy and claims she’s done things “worse than you could know,” he doesn’t miss a beat: “That’s good, because if you actually were as innocent as you pretend to be, we’d never get anywhere.” Good thing he doesn’t charge extra for the witty rejoinders.

Sam’s unflappability and lack of warmth make him something of an anomaly as a “good guy” in John Huston’s “The Maltese Falcon.” Bogart churns out quips like an assembly line, and while they’re canny or downright comical they serve a greater purpose: to create distance between Sam and everyone else. He wants things on an even keel, and emotions have a way of mucking up the peace. So he’s an off-putting choice for a traditional hero. Then again, there’s not much about “The Maltese Falcon” that plays by any cinematic rulebook. If anything, Huston’s taken the book, ripped it to shreds and then written a new one. Huston’s noir film, based on Dashiell Hammett’s thorny detective novel, was a game-changer. Whether “The Maltese Falcon” is the first noir film is up for debate, but there’s no denying the movie’s impact on Hollywood. Few noir films since have boasted ensemble casts or cinematography this good, femme fatales as slinky and devastating as Astor or leading men as exquisitely droll as Bogart. This was a once-in-a-lifetime convergence of directing, writing, filming and acting.

“The Maltese Falcon” would lose immeasurable impact if Bogart were even one inch off in his timing and delivery. He isn’t. From the minute Sam Spade appears onscreen, Bogart makes it plain he’s a hard nut to crack. He barely has to say anything; just the sight of him behind that desk, cigarette smoke swirling, is enough. Along comes Brigid and the drama begins. She wants Sam and his partner Miles (Jerome Cowan) to find the dangerous man who has kidnapped her sister and taken her to San Francisco. Miles tails the would-be kidnapper and ends up with a bullet in him. When his widow (Gladys George) shows up, Sam wastes no time putting the moves on her … something he started doing long before Miles died. But despite his lack of compassion, Sam has principles, and they dictate that he find the man who killed his partner. The investigation will prove rocky because of Brigid’s sheer inability to tell the truth. She has many faces that she counts on to fool everyone, since most fall for her knockout looks. Sam’s immunity to her charms is the one thing she didn’t count on.

And so “The Maltese Falcon” starts unspooling. Every lie is followed by another, and more unsavory characters appear: “dandy” Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre); the ominous Frank “Fat Man” Gutman (a pitch-perfect Sydney Greenstreet); and Wilmer “Little Boy” Cook (Elisha Cook Jr.), Frank’s flunky. The only commonality is their desire to find the Maltese Falcon, a mysterious and priceless artifact. Convoluted as it is, the plot, ultimately, isn’t the point, just like the falcon statuette isn’t the point. These are merely devices to lead all these characters to the same place: the unavoidable showdown. It’s coming and we know it, but those final 20 minutes are thrilling to behold, a showcase of fine acting. Greenstreet, in his first film, exudes a quiet menace that catches us by surprise (particularly in the scene, so subtly filmed and acted, where he drugs Sam; in the end, he still seems kinder than Sam. Lorre kicks in the comic relief, and Astor is a tempest of an actress (a precursor for Vivien Leigh’s Blanche DuBois), whirling from sobs to doe-eyed swoons with alarming speed.

Still, all roads lead back to Bogart. He’s tough, diamond-hard at the edges, yet lets us see that somewhere deep in there, there’s a reason for all of it. That he won’t reveal the “why” makes his performance all the more powerful. It’s the stuff Oscars are made of.

Grade: A