A Night of 50’s Television with Edmond O’Brien

Time for another piece from the pen of Gordon Gates. This one is diversion into an area I don’t tend to cover myself, mainly due to the fact I’m not so well informed about it. Gordon, on the other hand, is very much on his home ground writing about the early years of broadcast television, a field where he has an enviable depth of knowledge.
Most people think of early television as an endless string of comedy, western and detective shows. There was however another genre that populated the airwaves.This was the anthology series. These shows, such as Alcoa Theater, Schlitz Playhouse, Ford Theater, Robert Montgomery Presents, Climax, General Electric Theater, Studio One, Stage 7, Lux Video Theater and so on were extremely popular, Some of these series ran for over a decade and produced hundreds of episodes each.The format was stand alone stories that had a drama one week, a western next, a horror then a noir etc. As movie making slowed in the 50’s, many top flight actors, directors and cinematographers etc switched to television.More than a few Oscar types ended up on the small screen.Here is a small example of just one actor’s work. I asked all if they were fans of Edmond O’Brien and everyone answered in the affirmative. Here we go.
A Night of 50’s  Television with Edmond O’Brien.
Here are three different episodes from three different series all starring Mister O’Brien. The episodes are all film noir tinged.
First up is from LUX VIDEO THEATER: To Have and Have Not (1957)
No need to retell the story as we all know it. I will just describe the changes from the 1944 film. The two leads are played by Edmond O’Brien in the Bogart role and Beverly Garland filling in for Bacall. O’Brien plays the role with a far more violent and menacing edge than the laid back “leave me out it” style Bogart used in the film. Beverly Garland likewise turns it up and does her part as if she is just a step away from being a tramp. This really causes the sparks to fly when the two are in the clinches. One would swear they were going to drop their linen any second. There is some real chemistry here. John Qualen does a straight up copy of the Walter Brennan role and does not stand out at all. Dan Seymour reprises his role from the film as the slimy head of the Vichy Secret Police. Frances Bergen does the role played by Polly Moran while Lyle Talbot plays the American fisherman. Though there is no Hoagy Carmichael, we do have Sir Lancelot belting out a calypso tune. Lancelot had a small role in the 44 film but most will recall him from Brute Force. He was the soulful singer of the cell block in that film. The rest of the cast is Ken Terrell, Richard Flato, Edward Barrier and Jean De Val. Jean Yarbrough directs. Given the confines of television at the time, this production works very well. There is the odd short-cut. For example, we only get to see the cast going to, or from the boat. None of these short cuts hurt the story and in fact speed up the action. This is one of the best bits I’ve ever seen Garland in. A top flight TV noir.
Second up is from SUSPICION: Death Watch  (1958) – This one has 3 Oscar winners involved.

Janice Rule plays a live-in nanny who witnesses her employer shot to death by a mob boss. She soon regrets that she agreed to testify for the Police after she gets several death threats, and a bullet through her car window. The police soon have her put away in protective custody. The detective in charge is your buddy and mine, Edmond O’Brien. O’Brien moves Rule to the 10th floor of a big hotel and puts together a crack team of detectives to look after her. As the trial date draws near, Rule becomes convinced that the mobster behind the murder, Phil Donati, will get her. O’Brien does what he can to calm the woman including having the windows covered in case of a sniper. Two days before the trial O’Brien hears from an informant that a hit has been arranged. The hitter? He is told it will be one of his own squad. Which one could it be? O’Brien has known them all for years. He approaches the D.A. and his Captain with the info. Change the detectives with others from a diff squad is their suggestion. O’Brien decides instead to go with the same crew and see if he can flush out the traitor. He assembles the detectives and tells them what he has heard. O’Brien figures that they will now keep a watch on each other. This he hopes will give him the time he needs to catch the turncoat. The next day, Edward Binns, the senior detective, is approached by O’Brien. “I need to trust someone and you are it”. He tells Binns that he suspects one of the police women on the squad. O’Brien wants Binns to sit in with her while he steps out to make a private phone call. O’Brien steps out followed shortly by the police woman who needs to “powder her nose”. Binns pulls his gun and enters Rule’s room and walks up to her. He begins to level the gun when O’Brien pops out of the shadows and lets him have it. It seems O’Brien had let himself in through a hallway door. “How did you know”? whispers Binns. O’Brien responds. “You were the only one on the detail not to report the bribe attempt the mob made to all the rest.” Binns is hauled away and Rule is safe to testify.

The rest of the cast include, Jeanne Bates, Clark Howat, Horace McMahon and Mary Gregory. Actor and sometimes director Ray Milland helmed this well paced episode. The d of p was 6 time nominated and 2 time Oscar winner, Ray Rennahan. The story was by John Hawkins who wrote Crime Wave, The Killer is Loose and The Shadow on the Window.

To finish off the evening we go with an episode of STAGE 7: Debt of Honor (1955)

Edmond O’Brien and Charles Bronson are the stars in this episode. The episode is based on the Cornell Woolrich novel, I.O.U. One Life.

Our man O’Brien is a cop with a perfect life. He has a loving wife, a young daughter and a nice home in the burbs. He has even received a nice promotion at work. His job? He is now a lieutenant with the force. He decides that a night out with the family in the town is in order. They are involved in a car wreck which results in them crashing off the road and into a lake. The wife, Kasey Rogers, gets out, O’Brien is thrown out but knocked unconscious. The daughter, Wendy Winkelman, is still trapped in the slowly sinking car. A passing motorist, Charles Bronson, dives into the water and pulls the child to safety. A somewhat groggy O’Brien comes to and thanks Bronson. He tells Charlie that he is forever in his debt. Bronson jumps in his car and drives off before O’Brien can get his name. A year goes by and O’Brien is now a Captain. He is in charge of a unit assigned to hunt down a killer. O’Brien looks at the suspect’s mug shot and recognizes Bronson. What to do? To avoid being involved, he puts his aide, Steve Pendleton, in charge and heads home.
“Good thing the wife and daughter are out of town” O’Brien thinks to himself. A couple of hours later and there is a knock at the door. Standing in the doorway is Bronson who has come to ask O’Brien to honor his “debt”. There is some great back and forth as the two men discuss the “debt”. Bronson says, “I gave you your daughter’s life! Now I want mine!” “I’m a cop you fool! I can’t do what you ask”! answers O’Brien. O’Brien finally tells Bronson he can stay the night but if Bronson is there in the morning, he is taking him in.

The episode is directed by Lewis R. Foster whose work included the noir Crashout and Manhandled. The episode was photographed by one of noir’s best, George Diskant. His work included Desperate, Riff-Raff, They Live By Night, Port of New York, On Dangerous Ground, A Woman’s Secret, Kansas City Confidential, Between Midnight and Dawn and The Narrow Margin. What more could a person ask for, O’Brien and Bronson in a Cornell Woolrich penned story. A real top flight time-waster!!!!

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Gordon Gates

Wyoming Mail

I reckon titles matter. I’ve commented before on how certain titles have grabbed my attention and were directly responsible for my watching those movies. I know, it’s somewhat similar to the old “don’t judge a book by its cover” adage and, momentarily at least, it does make me wonder whether I’m being shallow. If there are titles which can draw me in, the opposite is true to some extent as well and there are those which have actively discouraged me; I’m thinking here of long, cumbersome examples or the generally unappealing variety. This brings me to Wyoming Mail (1950), which is not so much an unattractive title as a terminally prosaic one. Perhaps I’m wrong about this, perhaps it’s just some personal prejudice of my own, but I cannot imagine that one getting too many people excited and keen to see the film. Frankly, I have to wonder what the marketing department at Universal-International were thinking of when this picture was being produced. That aside, let’s see how the movie itself plays out.

Yes, it’s a story about the mail. To be more specific, this is one of these westerns which adds undercover/spy trappings to a tale of the gradual expansion of civilization in the Old West. The train was pivotal in conquering the frontier, that iron road was the connection from ocean to ocean and allowed for the transport of people and goods almost everywhere at speed. And part of its function was to carry the mail. That’s where the story kicks in, pointing out how the railroad was following on from the early Pony Express and stage lines in this regard, and how it was simultaneously becoming the target of criminal gangs. So what we’re looking at is an exercise in infiltration, where government operative and former soldier turned prize-fighter Steve Davis (Stephen McNally) is tasked with heading west with the aim of tracking down the head of a gang of highly successful raiders. This quest will require his incarceration in the territorial prison, a stint in “the hole” and a subsequent breakout. All the time he’s burrowing ever deeper into the criminal network and picking up new threads to investigate, he’s continually switching identities and the prospect of betrayal is never far off.

While that title is as forgettable as they come and the script, by Harry Essex and Leonard Lee, has no pretensions about offering anything of depth, the movie remains a hugely entertaining. This, I think, is largely down to the pacing and the amount of incident packed into a brisk 80 minute running time. From the opening minutes the story never lets up, barely pausing for breath as robberies, shootings, fights, double-dealing and a touch of romance sprint across the screen in a Technicolor delight shot through the lens of Russell Metty’s camera.

Director Reginald Le Borg is not someone I automatically think  of when westerns are being discussed. Although I do have a copy of War Drums somewhere, he’s most familiar to me for taking charge of a number of Lon Chaney Jr horrors, particularly a clutch of Inner Sanctum titles. I think the last movie of his that I watched was around the turn of the year when I enjoyed Vincent Price in an attractive looking piece of nonsense called Diary of a Madman. This is a handsome production as well and while I certainly wouldn’t like to refer to it as nonsense it is breezy and quite insubstantial. I’m not sure I can say much about Le Borg as a director beyond the fact he brought a welcome sense of urgency to the picture.

Having Russell Metty behind the camera is a big plus for any movie, but the other big selling point for Wyoming Mail is the cast. I like Stephen McNally a lot, he was one of those guys who was equally effective as hero or villain, in the lead or in support. He’s a good choice in this as the Easterner sent to smash the train robbers’ gang and his snappy, quick-talking assurance works a treat. The romance with Alexis Smith is mostly effective and enjoyable to watch, although I imagine it can’t have been much of a chore being asked to play a love scene opposite Ms Smith. One look at the cast ought to tell you you’re going to be in for a pretty entertaining experience. Just take a moment to read: Howard Da Silva, Ed Begley, Richard Jaeckel, James Arness, Richard Egan, Gene Evans, Frank Fenton, Whit Bissell. Granted some of the parts are small and the appearances fleeting but simply seeing these people on the screen is a pleasure in itself. Incidentally, McNally, Smith and Egan would appear together a few years later in Dick Powell’s enjoyable Split Second.

To the best of my knowledge, Wyoming Mail has only had one official DVD release anywhere. That was in France via Sidonis, and it’s one I haven’t bothered to pick up due to the tendency for that company to force subtitles. There aren’t too many Universal-International westerns that remain hard to access these days – unlike their crime and noir pictures – excepting those which seem to have problems with elements or prints in the incorrect aspect ratio. Anything I’ve seen of Wyoming Mail, which pops up online from time to time, suggests that the film is in good shape overall so it’s odd that it’s not been made more widely available. Mind you, I have a hunch the title can’t be helping in that respect…

Sleep, My Love

There are a couple of options open should you come across anyone who tries to sell you the idea that the impact movies have on culture is negligible. You could think to yourself that this person is mistaken or misguided, and leave it at that. Alternatively, you can attempt to set them straight. Now language and culture are inseparable, their relationship being essentially symbiotic. So, when the movies give us words that become part of everyday language, that ought to bolster the idea of cinema’s cultural significance. Every classic movie fan, and film noir aficionados in particular, will be aware of Gaslight. The story, derived originally from a play, was filmed twice  and the concept underpinning it has become a staple of countless psychological thrillers. In a broader cultural sense, the term gaslighting has entered the language and refers to manipulating others to the point where they start to question to their own judgement, perception and ultimately their sanity. All of which brings me to Sleep, My Love (1948), an undeniably stylish entry in this sub-genre.

Alison Courtland (Claudette Colbert) is a wealthy woman from an elegant, patrician background. She’s not the type of person one would normally think of as likely to awaken in the dead of night aboard a train speeding towards an unknown destination. Nevertheless, that’s the first view we get of her, panicked, frantic and screaming blue murder in confusion. Her husband (Don Ameche), concerned to find her missing and nursing an apparent gunshot wound to his arm, has called in the police. It seems that this isn’t the first time the lady in question has disappeared but no harm has been done and she’s soon on a flight back home to New York. On the way she makes the acquaintance of another well-to-do type, Bruce Elcott (Robert Cummings) who is just home from China. I don’t believe I’m revealing too much here if I get right to the point and say that Alison is being maneuvered into an increasingly vulnerable position by her smooth but calculating husband. This becomes clear quite early on, and I feel  it constitutes maybe the biggest weakness of the picture. To my mind, the writing gives away too much too soon. It’s not merely a question of the viewer being deprived of surprises, but rather the fact that this “lay it all before you” approach robs the movie of much of its suspense and accompanying tension. While these are not the only elements in movies of this type, they are important and effectively negating them at an early stage means that viewers are left with little more than a sense of curiosity over how the hero will eventually triumph.

That’s not to say there is no tension or suspense in the movie; individual sequences such as the drug-induced suicide attempt are very well executed. This is where the skill of the director comes into play. Douglas Sirk, along with cinematographer Joseph Valentine, draws full value from the interior of the Courtland home, the staircase featuring prominently. As seen above, it’s essentially pinning Claudette Colbert in place with the shadows cast by the balustrade creating bars to imprison her in her own home, the weight of her own noble heritage bearing down on her and precluding, as though it were an affront to good taste, any consideration that her husband might be plotting against her. This noir imagery is sprinkled throughout the movie, Venetian blinds often replacing the vertical lines with horizontal ones but the impression of individuals trapped by circumstance remains.

The visuals, as one might expect, are among the greatest strengths of the picture. Sirk’s films are always good to look at, and of course mise en scene  is a term often used whenever his name comes up; he goes in for a lot of sharply tilted angles here, from those vulnerable shots from below to the more remote ones gazing down with a cynical detachment. These altered perspectives are very much to the fore in the studio of Vernay (George Coulouris). Overlooking the sidewalk and street,  here the crooked photographer makes his plans for his partnership with Courtland and his model Daphne (Hazel Brooks) perches higher still on her pedestal and mulls an entirely different partnership. This is all nicely set up to highlight her disdainful superiority, and she quite literally spends the whole movie looking down on everyone.

Claudette Colbert got top billing and she was still a major star at the time. It’s her show really, and she is fine as the increasingly rattled woman who can’t seem to convince anyone she’s not hallucinating. There’s a little sequence around the halfway point where she attends a wedding of a Chinese couple in the company of Cummings and she comes across well here – unaffected and openly appreciative of the opportunity to mingle among a different crowd to her usual acquaintances. It’s beautifully played as she rambles on about how different we all are and her simple take on what makes some people happy and others unhappy, a common feature of Sirk’s films. She gets across the sweetness of her character naturally and even her slight tipsiness by the end of the evening is quite credible – I’ve lost count of the number of actors who overcook it when asked to portray drunkenness on screen.

Robert Cummings is an actor who divides opinion and I’ve heard more than a few people say they find him a poor lead in general. However, I’ve never had any issues with him – I liked him in his movies for Hitchcock (Saboteur & Dial M for Murder) and I think Anthony Mann coaxed a solid performance from him in The Black Book. Frankly, I think his charm is a neat contrast to the polished insincerity and moral weakness of Ameche. Hazel Brooks is a striking presence – physically stunning, sexy and insolent, she is visibly contemptuous or everybody and everything around her. Yet her performance has an odd feel to it, her delivery of her lines sounding stiff and forced to me. Coulouris is an engaging villain, a strange combination of suave and clumsy, menacing and simultaneously the butt of Brooks’ barbs. In minor roles Keye Luke is entertaining as Cummings’ pal and Raymond Burr is welcome but underused as a skeptical detective.

Olive Films in the US released a very attractive edition of Sleep, My Love some years ago on both Blu-ray and DVD. The movie looks clean and sharp and Sirk’s visual style is highlighted most effectively. The script, on the other hand, is just OK. The gaslighting theme will be a familiar one to many viewers and I would have preferred it if a little more ambiguity had been injected, or at least a little more information had been held back, in order to build some added suspense. As it stands,  the audience is forever a step or two ahead of the characters, which I’m not convinced is the best approach to take. On the whole, however, I have a positive feeling about the movie. It’s not perhaps full-on Sirk but there is  plenty of greed and thwarted desire, with characters living out lives that barely hint at the reality simmering below the surface. This alongside the visuals and a handful of attractive performances are enough to overcome other deficiencies in the script for this viewer.