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White Heat: 70th Anniversary of an American Crime Classic

3 Sep

On September 3, 1949, 70 years ago today, Raoul Walsh’s crime thriller, WHITE HEAT, opened in the U.S.  Its star, James Cagney, was renowned in the 1930s for his gangster portrayals in such films as PUBLIC ENEMY, G-MEN, and EACH DAWN I DIE, but he hadn’t made a crime film at all in the ten years since the prohibition saga, THE ROARING TWENTIES (1939), also directed by Walsh. During that time, Cagney made war films, comedies, melodramas and the flag-waving musical, YANKEE DOODLE DANDY. By 1949, gangster fans were itching for the old Cagney, while younger filmgoers needed to be reminded what he was most famous for. The original trailer for WHITE HEAT is chock full of violent, graphic action, with Cagney a relentless, murderous force, snarling, punching and shooting his way through a quick, brutal rehash of the film’s plot in three minutes: train robbery, prison, daring escape, pursuit by the Feds, and an explosive climax at a chemical plant in Southern California. Older fans were beside themselves with gleeful anticipation, while the younger ones’ jaws dropped. As the trailer put it, “It’s your kind of Cagney / In his kind of story / Blazing his way to the top of the world!”

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The Blaxploitation Era: A Scrapbook from the ’70s

20 Feb

In going through old file boxes from the 1970s, I found a number of clippings that effectively illustrate the Blaxploitation era of Hollywood filmmaking, a period from roughly 1971-75, when action and other genre films showcased black heroes and heroines, usually in reworkings of standard genre formulas. They were made quickly and cheaply to capitalize on a trend that could fade out at any time as it eventually did after its peak in 1972-73. These films played grindhouses and neighborhood theaters but also, for a time, premiered at the biggest Broadway movie palaces and commanded ads and constant press coverage. I usually saw them at Bronx neighborhood theaters where they were often paired with Italian westerns and, later, kung fu films, a trend which gradually displaced Blaxploitation. I’d like to share some of what I clipped 45 or so years ago, supplemented by movie stills from my collection and posters copied from IMDB and other sites.

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Steve Cochran Centennial

25 May

Steve Cochran would have turned 100 today, May 25, 2017. (He died in 1965.) He was a character actor who was most active in the 1940s and ’50s, most often playing dark, good-looking heavies in crime films and westerns. He was under contract for a while to Samuel Goldwyn Productions and later to Warner Bros. where he made what I consider to be his best films. He’s probably best known for WHITE HEAT (1949), in which he had a key supporting role as one of the robbery gang led by cold-blooded killer Cody Jarrett, played masterfully by James Cagney in his spectacular return to gangster roles after a decade away from the genre.

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Edmond O’Brien Centennial

10 Sep

Edmond O’Brien (September 10, 1915 – May 9, 1985) would have turned 100 today. I’ve seen him in 39 movies and a handful of TV episodes. He won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in THE BAREFOOT CONTESSA (1954) and was nominated in the same category for SEVEN DAYS IN MAY (1964). He acted in Hollywood for 35 years (1939-1974), becoming one of America’s most distinguished character actors, but also having a nice run as a leading man for close to a decade following World War II. He played in a lot of westerns and crime movies during this period and those are the films of his that interest me the most.

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1947 Blogathon: Postwar Hope and Despair: ONE WONDERFUL SUNDAY and VIOLENCE

14 Jul

This entry is part of the 1947 Blogathon sponsored by Shadows and Satin and Speakeasy. I chose two films from 1947 to write about and my original plan was to do separate entries on them, but after watching them back-to-back, I realized that the contrasts between them were so interesting that I thought it best to do a comparison piece. The first is ONE WONDERFUL SUNDAY, Akira Kurosawa’s incisive portrait of postwar lovers in Tokyo caught up in a cycle of poverty, and I chose it because it was a Kurosawa film that I’d never seen before and this would be a good opportunity to finally see it.

The second is VIOLENCE, a low-budget melodrama from Monogram Pictures about an organization exploiting war veterans for power and profit, and I chose it because it was the closest thing I could find to a conspiracy thriller from 1947, a year filled with events in the U.S. that fueled so many conspiracy theories for years to come.

One film was made in a country recovering slowly from defeat and the ravages of war, while the other was made in a country flush with the glory of victory and newly emergent on the global stage as the dominant world power, yet the stories they tell offer a reversal of sorts.

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VHS Preservation, Part 1: CHINATOWN KID (1977)

14 May

What happens when remaining copies of particular films or particular versions of films exist only on VHS tape in individual collections and the copyright owner or rights holder has either gone out of business or abandoned the property altogether? I have quite a few VHS editions of films and TV shows that are not readily available in other formats, mostly English-dubbed Japanese anime and Hong Kong kung fu movies, but probably quite a few other foreign and animated films as well, including many Italian genre films. These are titles that were once distributed on home video in the U.S. or syndicated to television, but are no longer officially available for one reason or another, including the fact that so many companies that once distributed to niche markets are now out of business and the rights holders in Japan and Hong Kong, if they’re still in business at all, have either been unable to find new licensees for these titles or are completely uninterested in any further distribution overseas. Or, as in the case of the film in question here, if the copyright owner is still active, they are unable to find a complete print of something that once got distribution in the U.S.

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Alan Ladd Centennial

3 Sep

Today marks the centennial of the birth of Alan Ladd (September 3, 1913 – January 29, 1964). Ladd was in many ways the quintessential movie star of the studio era. Although his stardom was nurtured by Paramount Pictures, the studio to which he was under contract throughout the 1940s, it was the audience that made him a star. Moviegoers clearly loved him and clamored for his movies. He struck such a chord with them in the 1940s and early 1950s that pretty much anything he made satisfied them. Paramount didn’t put a lot of money into his movies nor, with rare exceptions like the 1949 version of THE GREAT GATSBY, did they allow him to take on challenging roles and riskier subject matter. He specialized in a certain kind of medium-budget, mid-range action film in various genres that formed the foundation of the studio system: crime melodramas, westerns, war movies, and globe-trotting adventures. A sampling of titles should convey the type of movie Ladd appeared in: CHINA, CALCUTTA, SAIGON, SANTIAGO, BRANDED, RED MOUNTAIN, DRUM BEAT, SASKATCHEWAN, THE BIG LAND, HELL BELOW ZERO, HELL ON FRISCO BAY, APPOINTMENT WITH DANGER, CHICAGO DEADLINE, THUNDER IN THE EAST, DESERT LEGION, THE IRON MISTRESS. He often played the reluctant hero, a loner out for himself, devoted to his own self interest, who ultimately does the right thing and helps the underdog.

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VHS Discoveries: “Tales of Chivalrous Women”

24 Feb

Long live VHS! In May of last year, New York’s Book Off, a repository of used books, manga, CDs, and DVDs, offering items from both the U.S. and Japan, unveiled a new, revamped section of VHS tapes. I had previously purchased dozens of VHS tapes from this store over the past 20 or so years, at prices ranging from $1 to $3 to $5 to $15-20 each, depending on any number of factors. At some point in early 2011, they got rid of most of their tapes (or simply put them in storage), leaving only a single shelf of Japanese children’s shows and films on VHS, which sat there until last May. On a recent tour of the VHS section, I found four Yakuza movies from 1969-71, all in Japanese with no subtitles (as is the case with pretty much all Japanese films and TV shows on VHS) and picked them up at $3 apiece.


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Al Capone – Three Film Versions

7 Apr

Al Capone was a famous gangster who dominated bootlegging in Chicago during much of the Prohibition era in the 1920s, despite a multitude of rivals whose opposition led to open warfare in the streets, culminating in the infamous “St. Valentine’s Day Massacre” in a Clark Street garage in 1929.  I have stills from three different movies about Capone, so I decided to watch all three to compare the portrayals and then consult a book I have on him to see how accurate the movies were. I don’t have DVDs of the films, only VHS copies, so I didn’t get any screen grabs. The films are: AL CAPONE (1959), THE ST. VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE (1967), and CAPONE (1975).

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The Art of the Film Still, Pt. 3: I DIED A THOUSAND TIMES (1955)

25 Mar

I DIED A THOUSAND TIMES is a 1955 remake, in color and Cinemascope, of the 1941 crime classic HIGH SIERRA. It’s about a career heist artist who gets paroled from prison in the Midwest through the machinations of an ailing crime boss in order to engineer the robbery of jewels from the safe deposit boxes of a Palm Springs-type resort. Jack Palance plays the criminal, Roy Earle, a part originated by Humphrey Bogart. Palance’s character is quieter, less talkative than Bogart and less ruminative. He’s more tightly wound and quicker to anger and reduces other tough guys in the film, including Lee Marvin, to a quivering jumble of nerves.

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