Classic Flix Review: Out of the Past (1947)

Greetings, once again! It isn’t often that I’ve been given the opportunity to indulge in a Trifecta or triple play regarding one of Hollywood’s premier Tough Guys, Robert Mitchum. I covered his Scary attributes in The Night of the Hunter. I am going to dial it back a bit and explore another arena where the actor reigned supreme. Intimidation. Best illustrated in a film from 1947. Directed with sly gusto, elan and eerie shadows by Jacques Tourneur. Who instinctively knew when bright sunlight and its absence were called for. Where to put them and for how long. To that end, allow me to introduce:

Out of the Past (1947)

The film begins in bright California sunshine as a convertible rolls into the small rural, rustic town of Bridgeport, California. Locked somewhere between Lake Tahoe, Reno and far away from L.A. Its latest visitor is an elder errand boy for a higher power looking for Jeff Bailey. Superbly realized by Robert Mitchum. Quiet, unassuming. Just wanting to get by while seeing the town’s naive ‘Good Girl’, Ann Miller. Played well and memorably by Virginia Huston. Who knows nothing of Jeff’s past and whose parents do not approve. Though they wholehearted approve of local policeman, Jim. Well and briefly played by Richard Webb. The errand boy and Jeff talk. Jeff agrees and takes Ann with him. The long road trip allows plenty of time for Jeff to fill Ann in on his past as a private investigator in New York who had once rubbed elbows with that higher power. Failed mobster, Whit Sterling. A role creepily brought to life by Kirk Douglas. Absolutely reveling in his well toned physicality as he dutifully fends off subpoenas and possible future federal investigation. Whit needs to get his house in order. And to do that, his old (kept) girlfriend, Kathie needs to be found. Kathie may or may not have shot Whit and absconded with $40,000. May have headed south and may or may not be hiding in Acapulco.

Jeff slinks into Acapulco and begins haunting the local bars and cantinas. Striking gold very early as Kathie makes her entrance from scorching afternoon sunlight into the bar’s soft shadows. Radiating beauty and sensuality with practiced fluid ease. To say that Jeff was hit by a lightning bolt would be understatement. Jeff strikes up a conversation that quickly evolves into acquaintance and a torrid love affair. Pillow talk slowly reveals Jeff’s true purpose. Kathie denies shooting Whit, but hints that the two of them could run away together with the forty grand.

Jeff goes to his hotel room to pack and finds Whit and the errand boy waiting for him. Jeff asks to be taken off the case, but Whit will not take no for an answer. Jeff then lies. Saying that Kathie slipped through his net and is on a steamer headed south. Whit lets Jeff go and soon, Jeff and Kathie are headed to San Francisco. Where they try to maintain a low profile. Until they are spotted spending the day playing the ponies by Jeff’s old partner, Fisher. Played with oily, thuggish aplomb by Steve Brodie. Who is given the slip while quickly putting two and two together and smelling money.

Jeff and Kathie split up and when Jeff arrives at their rural bungalow. Shadowy, angular Noir kicks into high gear as Jeff finds Fisher waiting with Kathie. Fisher wants a piece of what Jeff and Kathie have to keep quiet. Punches are thrown. Many connect. More heard than seen. Except for the expression on Kathie’s slowly smiling face. Fisher drops his pistol. Kathie picks it up and kills Fisher, much to Jeff’s dismay. As she splits to leave Jeff to clean up the mess. After things are tidied up. Jeff happens upon Kathie’s bank book and finds a recent deposit of $40,000.

Fully briefed in, Ann waits as Jeff meets Whit for a final proposition. Away from the prodigal girlfriend, Kathie’s eyes and ears. It seems that things have gone from bad to worse in regard to Whit’s organization and the feds. The IRS is breathing down Whit’s neck openly discussing prosecution for tax evasion. An affidavit about a shady land deal is being kept by Whit’s lawyer, Leonard Eels. Who is using it to blackmail Whit. Jeff correctly figures that Eels also has Kathie’s affidavit implicating Jeff in Fisher’s murder.

Nightmare Alley ramps up as Ann returns to Cambridge and Jeff heads to San Francisco that night for a bout of tailing, stalking and skulking about. Avoiding Kathie as Jeff makes off with the lawyer’s papers and heads to Bridgeport. Kathie feels the walls closing in. She dispatches Whit’s errand boy to kill Jeff, but the attempt is thwarted. While Jeff drives to Lake Tahoe and talks Whit into turning Kathie over to the cops for Fisher’s murder. Before the deal is sealed, Jeff discovers Whit shot dead.

Before a word can be spoken, Kathie announces herself in charge with a superb coup under her belt. Then gives Jeff and ultimatum. Stay with her or face three murder raps. Whit’s. His errand boy and Fisher. Jeff agrees, but has time to make a quick call to Jim and his officers to set up a roadblock. As the two roll up on it, Kathie shoots Jeff. The police open up. The car crashes and the police find Jeff and Kathie dead amongst the missing forty grand.

What Makes This Film Good?

Where to begin? A superb screenplay by Daniel Mainwaring based on his hard boiled novel, Build My Gallows High with James M. Cain close by to kibitz. Lateraled to the machinations of Nicholas Musuraca and the little to no budget, magic pedigree of Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People and  I Walked with a Zombie. A master of limited lighting, smoke and myriad shadows. Instinctively aware of benefits of sunlight to accentuate the positive. And the variations of its absence to titillate the darker side of ominous tension and fear. Well versed in how emotions play into a dream scape of his own making. That appears familiar, yet slightly off kilter and other worldly once the action moves to San Francisco at night. In other words, Grade A Prime Noir!

A story that starts out at a regular pace, but slowly starts to wind tighter and tighter once Jeff and Ann begin their road trip to Lake Tahoe. And Jeff begins telling his sordid tale in flashback with occasional narration. Where nothing and no one is as it seems.The first hurdle is reached with Kirk Douglas and his smooth and oily, somewhat intimidating Whit Sterling. Swelled, broad chest and all. Obliquely speaking in cautious sentences that rarely connects point A to B. Lest there be microphones connected to the law close by. Radiating supreme confidence as his empire shows cracks from strain and threatens to fall.

Aided by Roy Webb’s sometimes eerie orchestration that seethes with mood when Jeff and Kathie are together. Deftly focusing the attention of the audience throughout. Kudos to Darrell Silvera’s sometimes spartan set direction played against Edward Stevenson’s choices in sheer, opulent, flattering gowns for Jane Greer’s Kathie.

What Makes This Film Great?

Robert Mitchum well in his prime. Seeming incredibly tall and nearly as wide across. His face and body intersected by shadows. Proving to the world that he was made for Noir and foggy, rainy San Francisco nights. Snap brim Fedora, Trench coat and all. Not quite ready for the bad craziness that would plant him on the map with Night of the Hunter. Mitchum reveals more of himself and his character in 97 minutes than in the lion’s share of his works. Relying on his physical presence to get his message across. Occasionally offsetting that with wisps of smitten, shambling, puppy dog silliness after he’s fallen Hook, Line and Sinker for Jane Greer’s femme fatale, Kathie. Knowing this relationship won’t have a happy ending. Though enjoying the ride and really not caring as he plays every card in his hand and still comes up short.

Jane Greer setting the bar incredibly high for all later gorgeous, manipulative women in film. Using elegance and poise to catch the attention of her prey. Then using raw sensuality to keep him well and fully trapped. Shrewd and obviously used to getting what she wants. Greer’s Kathie Moffat does whatever is necessary to stay one step ahead. And looks great doing it!

The Film’s Mystique:

Considered by many to be the crème de la crème of Film Noir. Out of the Past along with Detour set and exceeded many of the ground rules for Film Noir. Basically due to budgeting. Lighting cost money. So, the fewer lights that are required. The more money is saved. In this film, that premise is writ large. Relying on Sunlight for scenes in and around Cambridge. While leaving San Francisco shadow slashed and swirling in fog. Tourneur’s natural playground.

Creating a gem that was nominated for the National Film Registry in 1947 and was selected in 1991.


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Classic Flix Review: Cape Fear (1962)

Greetings, once again! It isn’t often that I’ve been given the opportunity to indulge in a Trifecta or triple play regarding one of Hollywood’s premier Tough Guys, Robert Mitchum. I covered his Scary attributes in The Night of the Hunter. His being made for the genre of Noir in Out of the Past. Now, I want to delve into the actor’s ability to basically write the book for being a malevolent nemesis in one of, if not the first, great Psychological Thrillers in film!

Cape Fear (1962)

Made in 1962 and directed by J. Lee Thompson. With a screenplay by James R. Webb from the John D. MacDonald novel, The Executioners. The film begins in bright, sunny Savannah, Georgia. In and amongst the city’s square whose busy, intersecting streets are full of some of the finest big, shiny, bullet bumpered and finned cars of that time. Weaving between them is Max Cady. Recently released convict with a Gibraltar-sized chip on his shoulder after spending eight years for a rape charge in Baltimore, Maryland.

Tall, broad and obnoxiously brooding. With a Panama Hat and a large, vile cigar stuck in his face. Robert Mitchum’s Max Cady confidently, nonchalantly revels in a role that reeks and sweats of malevolently boiling evil. Cady climbs the steps of the court house. Knocking some books from the arms of a female clerk, without a backward glance on his way up the stair case. Cady finds the proper court room for a look at defense attorney, family man and pillar of the community; Sam Bowden. Magnificently played by Gregory Peck. With hints of General Frank Savage in Twelve O’ Clock High and just beginning to gently grasp the mojo of Atticus Fitch in To Kill A Mockingbird. Equal parts stoic and humane. Peck is in superb form as the man whose testimony had put Cady away.

Cady takes a seat in the back of the court and sizes Bowden up as the counselor argues against a continuance and finds Bowden wanting. Outside the court house. Cady reacquaints himself with the good counselor. Hinting that he is going to be around for a while and they have some catching up to do with typical non-threatening, Jailhouse Lawyer hubris. Bowden takes this all with a grain of salt as he returns to hearth and home. Dinner and bowling afterwards. While at the lanes, Bowden senses more than sees Cady having a beer and eying his wife, Peggy. Well and dutifully played by Polly Bergen in one of her rare cinematic roles. And his daughter, Nancy. All of fifteen and deftly played by Lori Martin. No longer a child, but not a woman. With about one one hundredth of the angst and drama associated with that age today. Definitely Daddy’s little girl.

Bowden feels a chill go up his spine. Misses an easy spare and decides to call his friend, Police Chief Mark Dutton to see if there might be a way to persuade of roust Cady into leaving their fair city. Terrain very familiar to Dutton.  Realized with a career cop’s mindset and perseverance by always reliable Martin Balsam. Who suggests checking on Cady’s finances and parole officer to possibly gain some leverage. The following morning becomes evening and finds Cady in a smoky basement bar quietly flirting with a stunning brunette with a taste for slumming. Barrie Chase, whose time and scenes are brief, but part and parcel of what is to come.

As if on cue, Dutton and a clutch of cops arrive and take Cady downtown. Where Cady is surprisingly prepared for evening’s events. Down to a bankbook with $5,400 and the business card of Cady’s personal physician, should blood or a physical be needed. Vagrancy and drunk and disorderly go out the window as Cady leaves to up the ante and pick up where he left off. Tormenting his quarry the next afternoon by poisoning the Boden’s dog. Then taking off that night in his pickup truck. With the brunette from the previous night by his side. Discovering too late the dangers of walking on the wild side.

A phone call brings Dutton, his entourage and recently hired private detective, Charles Sievers. Telly Savalas being Telly Savalas with hair and a seersucker suit to a flea bag hotel. Where Ms. Taylor doesn’t say much of anything useful as she packs her things and wants to get far, far away. Frustrated, Sievers suggests using some off the books talent to find and possibly punish Cady. Bowden balks and the next afternoon, his wife and daughter go into town to shop. Nancy wanders off towards the library and finds Cady in slow ominous pursuit. Nancy panic. Runs through halls and out into traffic and is almost struck by an oncoming car. Her mom finds her and Sam returns from  work to close to sheer pandemonium. Peggy is close to freaking out while Nancy is in bed, sedated.

Close to being at his wits’ end. Bowden finds Cady at a rather upscale bar. Where Cady details his life immediately after being released from prison. Where he found his wife who had divorced him while in stir. Kidnapped her for a ‘Second Honeymoon’ that lasted about two weeks. Then had her write her new husband a ‘Dear John’ letter full of dirty words. Hinting that he may have beaten his ex half to death in the process. Cady slyly photocopied the letter before it was mailed and had the copy mailed to his lawyer.

Bowden calls Sievers and tells him to unleash the hounds. To no avail. Cady is attacked under a pier by what looks like three leg breakers with appropriate accessories. Bicycle chain. Meat hook and switchblade. Cady takes a shot below the ribs from the chain. Gets really mad and sends the three to the hospital, but not before they talk. Now with the upper hand, Cady hires himself a nice bleeding heart, liberal civil rights lawyer to have Bowden disbarred. Then calls Bowden and tells him that he has something in special in store for his wife and daughter. Knowing that Sam will be in Atlanta on other business.

The good counselor gets clever and creative. Arranging for his wife and daughter to be on their house boat on the Cape Fear River. While Sam flies to Atlanta and doubles back by rental car. To lay an ambush with his family as bait while he and an off duty stand guard.

I’ll leave it right here, so as not to violate Spoiler Territory.

What Makes This Film Good?

A well assembled cast of proven A-List talent telling a tale under the masterful touch of director, Thompson. Who had held the reins previously for Mr. Peck in The Guns of Navarone. Working from a tense, compact screenplay derived from the novel by John D. MacDonald, of Travis McGee fame. A writer well versed in the illicit goings on along the southern seaboard.

Reinforced by mood drenched, shadowy, sometimes sweat-sheened B&W cinematography by Samuel Leavitt, who knows the value of darkness. And an ominous cello rich and brass soundtrack by Bernard Herrmann. If you are one of those who think the opening tracts of John Williams’ work in Jaws is the yardstick by which others are measured. Sit back to be swept away on a roller coaster by a true master!

Film editing by George Tomasini is fluid with no wasted scenes. Set direction by tried and true Oliver Emert works with nary a flaw. Wrapping the city of early 1960s Savannah, Georgia. Heat, cloying humidity and all, around those watching. While never letting on that three different locations were being utilized.

What Makes This Film Great?

Gregory Peck at the top of his game. Playing a character steadfastly loyal to the law. Living an idyllic, sedate life until fate rears its ugly head in the form of Max Cady. Who taunts, flaunts and intimidates until Peck’s Sam Bowden finds himself hamstrung by those same laws it when his family is threatened. First obliquely. Then overtly and profoundly.

Robert Mitchum towering over any and all. Completely content in his own skin. And that of his character. Holding the whole world in complete contempt as he flat out frightens many. Those foolish enough to not be impressed, he stares down and grimaces until they wise up. I’d mentioned in previous reviews how Mitchum can be scary. As his Reverend Harry Powell in The Night of the Hunter and intimidating as Jeff Bailey in Out of the Past. As Max Cady, Mitchum enters an whole and entirely new arena. Arrogant. Impervious and oozing with slovenly creepiness. Creating an iconic character until Martin Scorsese tried his hand at it. And created a film that stands alone, but still comes up short.

The supporting cast of Polly Bergen, Lori Martin, Barrie Chase, Martin Balsam and Telly Savalas all turn in memorable, exceptional work. With the lion’s share of attention given to the ladies in attendance who advance the story along believably and briskly. While Balsam and Savalas reveal some of their greatness to be realized in future films.

All meshing together in a Classic that has solidly and frighteningly withstood the test of time and still grabs attention today!

The Film’s Mystique:

The proper amounts of Peck in Mitchum in a project produced by Mr. Peck’s production company, Melville, which bought the rights to Mr. MacDonald’s novel very early on. Creating copious buzz when Robert Mitchum was Peck’s first and only choice for Max Cady. Rod Steiger’s agent lobbied hard, but was turned down on several occasions. Though Mr. Steiger did get to dance close to Cady’s character. As serial killer with a make-up kit, Christopher Gill in No Way to Treat a Lady in 1968.

Cape Fear is a superbly tense amalgam of Action. Reaction and scarily bullying while messing with one’s mind. Distinctly sloshing around in the kiddie pool of What if? Attention should be paid in regards to how Max Cady reacts when his taunts and threats are ignored or challenged. Each of Cady’s reactions are more violent and brutal than the one before. All offset by Cady’s near serene, inhuman Frankenstein smile when he has a woman right where he wants her.


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Thoughts on the original Cape Fear film? Do share ’em in the comments.

Classic Flix Review: The Night of the Hunter (1955)

Greetings all and sundry! On the advice of and other communications from Ruth, I am going to focus my abilities on a favorite actor of mine. With distinct attention to the actor’s innate ability to scare the Beejeebus out of those in the audience, without saying much of anything threatening. To that end, please allow me to introduce you to Robert Mitchum. Rocking the lead in first and only time director Charles Laughton’s magnificent, impressionistic and visually unique Masterpiece.

The Night of the Hunter (1955)

Our film begins on the banks of the Ohio River. On the lee side of the Appalachians in West Virginia in the midst of the Great Depression. Along winding country roads to an old, black, top down convertible with Robert Mitchum behind the wheel. In a white shirt, starched collar and black string tie. Matching suit and big black hat. As Harry Powell. Con man, Gigolo and lady’s man. Borderline Socio and Psychopath and self appointed Reverend. With ‘LOVE’ above the knuckles of his right hand. And ‘HATE’ on his left. Who sometimes talks to Gods. And whose favorite toy is a switchblade knife. Which he uses to carry out his plan and God’s work. Reverend Powell rolls into town and finds himself at a Bijou watching a bump and grind artist ply her rather weak trade. When he’s boxed in by the local police and brought before a judge for a crime whose punishment is thirty days in jail.

Cut to more of the placid Ohio. Fertile farmland and small, well kept, maintained and tilled family farms. In the midst of one farm, there is a young brother and sister. John and Pearl Harper playing as the family car rolls up with their father, Ben. Pistol in hand. With lots to say and do with no time for either. It seems that the father, Peter Graves, long before Mission: Impossible has killed two men while helping to rob a bank of $10,000. He helps his kids hide the swag and swear never to reveal its location just as sirens draw near and the cops show up to take Pa away.

Pa draws the same judge who has sentenced Reverend Powell. And as fate would have it, Pa Harper draws the Reverend for a cell mate. Until Pa’s date with the Hangman. Time is short and Mitchum does his best to ingratiate himself, but Pa keeps his mouth shut about the money from the bank heist. Though he does talk about the farm, his wife, Willa. Shelly Winters, Test flying what would evolve into the tried and true prototype for her future characters in Lolita, Alfie and Harper. There is a strength in Willa. That nearly conquers her vulnerability. With two growing kids and a town of nosy, gossipy, holier than thou neighbors.

The Reverend is released before Pa Harper is hanged and takes his time on just the right approach to the recently widowed Harper. Who works as a waitress in the town’s Soda Shop and does her best to ignore the possibly well intentioned good, though snide advice of her co-workers. With John and Pearl in attendance, the Rev makes his first subtle move. With the classic Good vs. Evil tale of ‘Love and Hate’. So masterful is the Reverend’s telling, that Willa starts to show the first cracks in her armor. Which is duly noted as Willa sees something better. While John sees pure, smooth talking, evil.

Nature, greed and more than a subtle touch of peer pressure takes it course as Willa, the Reverend and the kids are seen more and more often. Culminating at a town picnic where Harry proposes to Willa off in the distance. John sees a bad moon rising, but is up against some heavy opposition. The wedding is consummated. Time, if not romance passes and the Rev goes into full press mode on John and Pearl. Willa overhears one evening and quickly has her throat slit and is disposed of in one of the creepiest modes in cinematic history.

Eyebrows start to raise in town as the Reverend’s tale that Willa lit out without a forwarding address doesn’t fly well. While John and Pearl start looking for anyway at all to split. That occurs after a questioning of Pearl heads south. John and Pearl run. Find a flat bottom boat and shove off as the Reverend falters behind. Leaving the kids with the Reverend’s loud, animal like snarl of defeat loud in their ears.Undaunted, the Reverend heads off. Kills a farmer and steals his horse and follows the river. Patient and finding his calm center. The Reverend follows leads that bring him to the home of Rachel Cooper. Superbly, near serenely played by Lilian Gish. Who takes in stray kids and gives them a home and chores to do.

Life is good. Until the Rev shows up just outside Mrs. Cooper’s white picket fence for a few bars of ‘Leaning on the Ever Lasting Arm’. Chorused by Mrs. Cooper as she cradles a shotgun while rocking on the front porch. The evening hymnal is interrupted by one of the girls, Ruby. As Mrs. Cooper blows out a candle and the Reverend disappears. Mrs. Cooper tells Ruby to round up the kids!

I won’t take the story farther. Lest I get into serious Spoiler territory…

What Makes This Film Good?

First and only time director Charles Laughton deftly borrowing and sometimes outright stealing the shadowy exposition of F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang. To raise hairs on the back of necks in what would be otherwise innocuous scenes. That these scenes for the most part feature Mr. Mitchum’s Reverend shot from low angles to highlight his height and breadth is just creepy icing on the cake. Laughton seems to have found the Alchemy of melding foreboding mood with palpable atmosphere and makes the most of it in frame after frame. In a film that many should look upon as a First Kiss. The yard stick that all others afterwards are measured. And often found wanting.

Symbolism seems to be running quietly amok throughout the film. Especially in the long, sedate scene when John poles the flat bottom boat through what looks like Palmetto thick bayou. Thick with tortoises, frogs and spider webs. Shadows and silhouettes abound. In halls, stairways, ladder ways and the horizon. More so once the sun goes down and lighting is supplied by a waning crescent moon on the river. And gaslight and candles within the towns.

All in a basic, though superbly executed film about good and evil. The children, John and Pearl score very high on the Cherub Meter. Though John is more iron willed, while Pearl is wide eyed and naive. Stacked against neighbors and town folk who are not who or what they appear to be. While also being far too judgmental and prone to gossip. Cautiously watched by the Reverend Powell. Who is delightfully near hypnotic to watch as evil incarnate. Beneath his smile, schtick and deep, calming Basso Profundo voice.

What Makes This Film Great?

All of the above. And Robert Mitchum reveling in and making the most of his physical presence. In an iconic role that would define him until Cape Fear, seven years later. Throwing either long shadows or tall silhouettes as he ambles through spartan, roughly hewn, sturdy, yet seemingly small sets designed by Alfred Spencer and Hilyard Brown. Sharing time and space with stolid talent like Lilian Gish. And then up and comers, Peter Graves and Shelly Winters.

Cinematography by Stanley Cortez is remarkable throughout. With many memorable moments heightened by music by Walter Schuman. Who instinctively knows where and when its needed. And not.

All helping to create an unique experience that is an odd, eerie blend of Norman Rockwell, American Gothic and a touch of A Nightmare On Elm Street.

Little wonder that The Night of the Hunter was nominated to the National Film Registry in 1955 and was accepted in 1992.


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Thoughts on this film? Do share ’em in the comments.