Honeymooners take on a mission for the Foreign Office.
One grows old in this service, though it starts merrily enough in code phrases at the Café de l’Opéra and the Lapin Agile. Liszt and a critic are major figures, Nazi Greater Germany is the silentious backdrop.
The horrifying spectacle, which takes cognizance of Hitchcock naturally, turns this to an uproar as the Dachau camp commandant is assassinated during a concert.
“A rattling good melodrama” (T.S., New York Times). Variety was confused. “Pleasant, undemanding and totally incredible” (Geoff Andrew, Time Out Film Guide).
A masterwork that ends just over the Italian border.
The Thin Man Goes Home
Nick and Nora on the train for Sycamore Springs. Dr. Charles looks down on Nick’s drinking, so they share a flask of pure cider on the packed train, and though they smuggle Asta aboard wrapped in Nora’s fur coat, he is detected by a porter and all must make their way through impermeable crowds to the baggage car, between the goats and ducks. Wartime is hell...
Dr. Charles also looks down on his son’s profession, which he seems to think is “policeman”. Young Nick should have been a doctor like his old man. Nora plays Dr. Watson in a fiery recounting of a murder case that rather racily documents why you can’t go home again, but this is of no avail. She hopes for a case that will mend the rift, and one drops dead in the doorway.
The case certainly resembles the real-life wartime adventures of Igor Stravinsky, whose luggage was being searched by border guards during World War I when they spied two portrait drawings of him by Picasso, which they insisted were maps of local fortifications.
Malaya is knowingly constructed out of Casablanca, and the basis of that is given in the astounding first scene of James Stewart sitting in front of Lionel Barrymore’s desk at the Los Angeles Daily Record. This is where the need for rubber in wartime is discussed, and a plan for obtaining it broached. Barrymore speaks of his pleasure at seeing Stewart’s “honest face” after four years, the scene is plainly based on It’s a Wonderful Life.
Stewart has just arrived on the S.S. Southern Seas from Malaya, his last post while covering Japanese military operations in the area. A Federal agent (John Hodiak) interviews him at his new apartment in Los Angeles, and later at a restaurant and bar adorned with notices such as “THE ENEMY IS LISTENING / He Wants to Know / What You Know / Keep It to Yourself”.
The reporter is brought by the agent to a railroad yard at night, where a meeting of military brass and experts is chaired by the publisher in a railroad car. The reporter’s plan is to ship Malayan rubber downriver from the interior past Japanese coastal positions to an American cargo ship. The plan is agreed upon by reason of the reporter’s knowledge about enemy installations in the region.
A very curious introduction of yet another film, The Third Man, prepares Spencer Tracy’s entrance. In the Far East, the reporter without portfolio wrote a story about a smuggler who is now in Alcatraz as a result and was his friend. “What did you come here for,” says the smuggler after not letting go all the way with a punch, “to tell me you’re still hungry?” Carnaghan is the key to the whole operation.
Sydney Greenstreet as the Dutchman runs a favorite bar of Carnaghan’s in the backcountry, where the singer is Luana (Valentina Cortese). Carnaghan renews his acquaintance with her because, as he says, “a man can’t belong to the world, it’s too big, and every night it dies.” The Dutchman supplies a dozen men, three rubber growers are contacted, an Englishman, a Brazilian and a German.
The first two transfers are successful, but the third is a trap that kills the reporter. Carnaghan instantly kills the German, then allows himself to be snookered by the governing Japanese officer, Col. Tomura, who orders a battle cruiser into place to stop the shipment. Carnaghan has PT boats at the ready, which sink the cruiser. Tomura shoots and wounds Carnaghan, who returns fire and kills Tomura.
The Dutchman hears from the Federal agent how Carnaghan and Luana have settled on a neighboring island. The medal that Carnaghan has refused is pinned on the Dutchman’s lapel at the smuggler’s instructions, to laughter from the Dutchman’s pet cockatoo.
This bare bones of an outline is enough for Thorpe’s treatment, which is very akin to his later The Scorpio Letters. The filming is economical and closely set in studio interiors, here with extensive use of rear-projection background “plates” which are succinct and very effective. The thrust of this is to focus attention on the actors, who give clear, unconventional and fully-rounded performances.
Stewart carries the first part as a George Bailey who has been overseas, tough and cagey. The reporter’s brother was killed on Wake Island, which is why he takes a final chance refused by the smuggler.
Tracy has the tactical keenness that matches the reporter’s strategic side. The smuggler enjoys a drink or a girl for the nonce, and has a sharp sense of the deal which cuts both ways. He nearly queers the deal with the Englishman, whom the reporter recognizes as fighting for the cause, but his instincts put him at the German’s throat almost at once, like a dog.
This is the point of the whole movie, a carefully rendered account of the forces in action. Col. Tomura’s sadistic Fascism must be countered by planning and great skill, the idealism of a revenge is minimal by comparison. The genuine American portrait achieved by the very fine screenplay and Thorpe’s direction is definitely a postwar evaluation as clear-minded as Charles Lamont’s Salome, Where She Danced, very advanced, thoroughgoing and at the same time veiled ever so slightly for modesty’s sake without concealing anything.
Thorpe’s pictures are always telling, the subtly tense wartime café, the freshly-painted railroad car gleaming at night, the tarpaulin-covered anti-aircraft gun behind the two men during their conversation topside on a destroyer at sea, the crashing wave their raft capsizes in as they go ashore, the “American camouflage” of foliage covering half the cargo ship (seen from a small boat rounding the prow), moonlight on the water from a hotel window or in a grand view of the rubber-laden boats meandering into the bay, etc.
Cortese sings “Blue Moon” rather like Dietrich. In a Cagneyan moment, Tracy pushes her off his boat and into the water as she tries to join him on the last gambit. Gilbert Roland smiles at action as a relief from the boredom of drinking. He thrusts an arm forward to let a Japanese soldier exercise himself upon it with jujitsu, then puts the man out with a karate chop to the neck. “I love the way you fight,” says Carnaghan.
Greenstreet plays down the eccentricity of the character is favor of realism, probably with reference to Marcel Dalio in To Have and Have Not. The Dutchman lets Tomura win at craps and beat the staff, even helps him with his art collection. When the request is made, he goes into the bar and touches twelve men on the shoulder or back or, if their feet are up, the foot, uncannily played and filmed in a continuous take. “You’re like a father to me,” says merry Carnaghan. The Dutchman returns the compliment, seeing his youth in the smuggler. They have the same instinctive appreciation of the world. “You see there,” says Carnaghan, “he sees right through me, I’m his youth.”
The planters are paid in American gold which, Carnaghan says, “will get you into most places, except possibly Heaven.” At one point he is captured and interrogated, but the Dutchman obtains his release on the grounds that it would be more instructive to see the fellow sweeping the bar rather than shot. Luana plays the piano while he mops and sings “Blue Moon”. Tomura takes in the sight.
Variety took this for “good commercial film product.” Halliwell’s Film Guide calls it a “dour action melodrama, unworthy of its considerable cast but watchable.” Tracy’s performance in particular makes this an antecedent of Peckinpah’s.
Bosley Crowther of the New York Times complained it was “more complicated” as a matter of fact.
In another twenty-five years, Lumet has Serpico, similarly sneered at by Vincent Canby in the New York Times and Stanley Kauffmann in the New Republic.
Lumet kept working at it, as the situation worsened.
And this while Thorpe is only concerned with the mob in 1900 and 1908 in New York, a shakedown racket among the Italian immigrants, bombings and kidnappings are the main strength, knife murders are also up the sleeve.
Halliwell’s Film Guide has “very stereotyped and artificial in treatment,” whereas the subject is treated with great authenticity throughout.
The gunner’s mate third class is now a singing idol, the skipper’s running for Congress.
“First things first, this is a matter of principle with me. There is no fiduciary feeling in trade any more, no tradition, no standards. We’ve become a nation of fools, faddists, and fakes.”
“Well, sounds very snappy, but what makes you think the public will understand it? You take my advice, Adam, practice smiling.”
A former agent slaps the crooner with a writ, the candidate steps in.
Dendrology, numerology, Confucius, Aucassin and Nicolette, Hero and Leander, enter the picture with two sisters, Athena and Minerva.
The actors are wonderful, of course, but watching Thorpe at work is the real entertainment as he navigates the complex screenplay quietly, determinedly satisfied in a steady flow.
Seven sisters, all told, daughters of Mulvain’s health foods, they turn befores into afters, strenuously.
“I’d drench you with damp devotion,” the crooner croons at Minerva, employing a thalassic metaphor. “I’ll spurn you and burn you, I guess that’ll learn you,” she replies in song, flame to moth.
Flute music for a Shaolin master accompanies the signboard.
For the traveler in want
For the traveler in pain
Take this rocky road
To the house of Mulvain
At the top of the stairs at the end of Highcastle Road and just “another half a mile”, an Eastern temple above the city, a fantasy, an idyll to recall the Pacific Parnassus on Mount Tamalpais (“but don’t knock California”) and whatnot. The girls dance to music played on the harp by Minerva, over at the modern house weightlifters do their stuff. Grandpa Mulvain interviews the candidate.
“Plan till you’re blue in the face, the stars say different, boy.”
A.W. of the New York Times, a real dullard, made bid to take this at face value as literally meant, you know, real, and was really disappointed, “hard put” as he put it “to discern” what it is “that robs this glossy package of distinction,” they don’t teach that in schools, folks, you learn it on the job in the city room as you slave, “energetic, sincere, and strangely unimaginative.”
The crooner has TV sponsors, beer, meat!
Mr. Universe is one week away.
Love is ruled by the stars and not by underlings, marriages are made in heaven, the nuts-and-berries life is a lifesaving regimen, “you’ll get used to it.”
“Who wants to get used to it?”
And yet, “love can change the stars whenever it’s strong enough.”
Observe the elements of which “I Never Felt Better” is made and see in Thorpe a great master of Minnellian naturalism in musicals (Sirk borrows the revamped décor at the end of this number for a memorable scene with Dorothy Malone in Written on the Wind).
Metempsychosis down the centuries is another study introduced, “keep that up and relax, pretend you’re a tulip” (this to be sure is the theme of Minnelli’s On a Clear Day You Can See Forever).
Athena sings Donizetti, the crooner is a headliner at Club Baroque in a Venetian number, “fairest of flowers, treasure the hours you spend with her.”
Thorpe takes up aspects of the material again in Ten Thousand Bedrooms.
You recognize this as a variant of You Can’t Take It With You, which as filmed by Capra also bewildered the critics (Halliwell’s Film Guide essentially agrees with A.W. on this one), furthermore it goes bodily into Rafelson’s Stay Hungry, as one should say.
“The bigger they are, the harder they fall,” and, “love is better than lettuce.”
Ten Thousand Bedrooms
A great apparatus for explaining the mystery of an artist strictly from hunger suddenly risen to a highly lucrative position ever so briefly, and what is to be done with him.
This joke was so lost on reviewers that Bosley Crowther missed Jerry, he said.
An American millionaire buys a Roman hotel, falls in love twice, has to get the other daughters married first, brings over two executives for this and puts the Count of Cracow on the payroll to supply sculptures, all in order to marry the youngest daughter, a flighty forward bright young thing loved by his pilot, the eldest daughter is the one he finally marries by sending the Count to greet the public in Bombay.
The Honeymoon Machine
“All scientists are poor. It’s a law.” A scheme to use a U.S. Navy computer to break the bank at a little casino in Venice.
From a play by Lorenzo Semple, Jr., a very savvy picture. The admiral’s daughter and the wienie heiress attend. “Tommy’s in the government now.”
“Ahhohh, which one?”
The admiral, “Old Foghorn”, alerts the fleet to enemy action, “if first revolution zero hold all action end”, which of course recalls now the Preakness Stakes of Frankenheimer’s Seven Days in May. “The Martians are here!” The Golden Fleecing, on the stage.
Bosley Crowther of the New York Times, “a wild and labored operation.”
The Catholic News Service Media Review Office, “harmless escapist fare.”
The Russian consul in Venice is perplexed, “for Khrushchev’s sake,” English subtitles ask a midnight conference, “what gives?????”
A naval lieutenant running the roulette wheel by mainframe analysis expresses his satisfaction, “hope the fleet sticks around a few days, I may buy Italy.”
The scientist, now rich, rejoinders, “whaddya say we blow this joint and take in a movie?” The Russians make an aborted bid for it, but “there is no such a thing as a system.”
Halliwell’s Film Guide, “barely raises a laugh.”
Follow the Boys
The great Richard Thorpe having directed this, you would think that Variety and the New York Times would have been more alert, but the former found it merely agreeable, and Bosley Crowther dismissed it entirely.
They were sadly mistaken. Even now, the All Movie Guide sees only a romantic mishmash as a pretext for songs, where Crowther saw annoying landscapes and wished he were elsewhere. This is indeed sad, a sad state of affairs.
Follow the Boys might have been made under the direct inspiration of Gilbert Gunn’s Girls at Sea, a tale of the Royal Navy on NATO maneuvers. It is grander, bolder, better filmed but not a better film than its original. Four girls go to the Riviera to meet their sailor beaux on maneuvers. The metaphor is very ancient, venerable and poetic, and gives Thorpe great scope for his perfect technique, which is exhibited in the most difficult technical feats performed effortlessly and faultlessly, amid a scaled use of widescreen for astounding compositions, and generalized two-shots for variety. Thus his views of the bay or the quays, satisfactory in themselves, are capable of instantaneous whip-pans of 180°, or a pan-and-tilt up from slip to shore in one second, but he puts the camera on two lieutenants in a medium close shot standing on the bridge, and leaves it there while Richard Long and Russ Tamblyn deliver their lines.
Not that it wouldn’t be enough to let Connie Francis (a great comic actress), Janis Paige, Paula Prentiss and Dany Robin (looking expressively undernourished) just stand in front of the camera with the Côte d’Azur all around them, or demonstrate the range and depth of femininity in myriad ways. Francis’s numbers have her singing a lullaby to an Italian infant, out-of-focus in the background is the family’s little shrine to the Madonna, she’s a long way from North Dakota, it’s a touching scene. Later, she lays out her nightgown on her hotel bed, crosses past the vanity table to a window overlooking the bay at night, her husband was called to duty between the wedding and the honeymoon, she sings “Waiting for Billy”. At an Italian wine festival, she is recognized (though at home she now modestly sings at “church sociables and the YMCA”, and at that her husband is jealous, “you know what the ‘M’ stands for,” he says) and enlivens the proceedings with a festive number.
Prentiss is an heiress, Long is an heir. “I’m cans,” she tells him, “you’re beef. Together we’re canned beef.” Not a match made in Heaven, though Wall Street might think so. Robin comes on strong and gets the royal treatment from Long, whose XO calls him a one-man Marshall Plan for his romantic exploits, but Robin is a debt collector and part-time actress, chastening those who forget the United States owes its very existence to French aid during the Revolutionary War.
The executive officer (Ron Randell) is about to be assigned to his first command, but Paige has had enough of his gallivanting and wants him home to raise children.
The jokes are plentiful, the acting is superb, the Navy ignored the critics and put WAVES aboard, a shrewd move. But, really, journalists should get out more often.
The Scorpio Letters
The letters are blackmail from the head of a secret international ring of hotel waiters who spy on guests and take notes, which began in Italy as a benevolent organization and moved to Paris during the war, serving the Resistance. Now it is a criminal enterprise, and an American operative is sent in by British intelligence to stop it.
Every aspect of this film is fascinating. First, it was made for television with no budget at all on the studio back lot in Hollywood, with a trip to the coast for the South of France, yet Thorpe composes every one of his shots. Second, the treatment is exceedingly complex and measured, Spies (and possibly Eisinger) having devised an approach to the material that unfolds slowly as an interdepartmental feud, expands into definite overtones of Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter, evokes Benjamin Franklin’s experience at the London print shop, has a flavor of The Quiller Memorandum in France, and recalls D.O.A. in Scorpio’s setup, with an overriding pun in the ubiquitous image of Oskar Homolka as the waiter in the Soviet colonel’s uniform in Billion Dollar Brain (the rival agency heads echo The Ipcress File).
The opening gag is a man sitting in his upstairs window on a London street, a bus conductor notices him idly smoking a cigarette, then he tumbles off the windowsill and falls. A curious blackmail note is at length recovered (after two more deaths and the American put in hospital briefly), thanking the recipient for his engravings, but wanting more realism, more detail as in the writer’s own collection, etc., all of which the quick-thinking operative discerns is a demand for more money against the release of certain information.
The blackmailed suicide was a British agent, but for another firm, who sought help when his wartime loss of nerve was brought back to haunt him. The American goes to the Alien Registration Office to get his visa renewed, and the man behind the desk has the odd job for him, such as this one (the American was a policeman cashiered on a charge of brutality).
The casting is really remarkable. Oscar Beregi is the glinting-eyed Scorpio, Shirley Eaton is a rival agent, Laurence Naismith is dutifully bound to be a sporting bureaucrat who dislikes American tourists, Antoinette Bower has a turn in boots as the suicide’s mate, the all but incomparable Ilka Windish is Scorpio’s chalk-pale, myopic and zaftig moll, Émile Genest is a headwaiter who feels past it, Arthur Malet does his Cockney number, and Danielle De Metz is the straying wife of one of the gang, who are known as the Bianeri, or black-and-white.
The unscrupulous moral position of this bunch has a long reach, all the way up to a cabinet minister who might have resided at No. 10 Downing Street—the American tells him, “I might have been someone I’m really not, too,” and beyond that to The Fourth Protocol with its wanton Soviets and calculating Britons.
Thorpe’s tight handling of this works with the script to make the very gradual revealing of the mystery coincide with an increasing revelation of structure. After the credits (with second-unit footage of London), the American is alone for a moment in the Alien Registration Office, he sees a curvaceous figure in the office across the way and studies it. That building is the rival agency’s, “how the other half lives” is an interesting theme.
Dave Grusin’s score lends a great deal of support to the studio work, eking out a London flat with two flutes and harp, broadening the ensemble a little for greater London, and sharpening the tone a bit for Paris by night (where the Bianeri meet).
The American (Alex Cord), who is described by his professional rival as “day labour”, takes a job at the Palace Hotel with a chef who continually berates his staff for not serving food hot. The American serves hot soup all over him. Later, he’s tied up by the gang and brandy is poured down his throat to make him talk. He’s fished out of the water, and follows the trail south to Nice and Valberg, where Scorpio and his gang present the very picture of Majak the import-export man and his family of thugs.
Another curious detail in this well-knit formulation is the American’s former chief, who isn’t seen but whose name is mentioned: Vettner, it sounds like, with a suggestion of “vetting”.
The Scorpio Letters, then, might be Much Ado About Nothing (Shakespeare’s title has been said to contain a pun on “noting”) for all the critical interest, or it might be a great work from a master director in the rather straitened circumstances of television production, which are turned to advantage. “How should I know,” says the American, “ask Scorpio—write him a letter.”