Vicki

One thing leads to another. A few weeks ago a bit of discussion on remakes came up, or to be more precise the relative merits of both Thorold Dickinson’s and George Cukor’s versions of Gaslight. Not long before that I’d been looking at Richard Boone in a movie directed by Bruce Humberstone, and it then occurred to me that Boone had starred in a remake of one of Humberstone’s earlier movies. Anyway, that meandering thought process led me back to Vicki (1953), a reworking of the proto-noir I Wake Up Screaming. Generally, I like to approach or assess movies on their own terms, as discrete pieces of work, where possible. Remakes make that a little trickier of course, particularly when one is very familiar with the other versions. Viewed on its own, Vicki is a moderate noir thriller of ambition, obsession and murder.

Vicki Lynn (Jean Peters) is a model, something which is immediately apparent from the opening shots of billboards and sundry advertisements, all prominently featuring her name and image and urging Joe Public to buy whatever it is she happens to be selling. However, perhaps I should have started off by stating that Vicki Lynn was a model for, despite her fame and ubiquity, our first glimpse of the lady herself is of the toes of her shoes protruding from beneath the sheet covering her corpse as it’s about to head off to the morgue. So Vicki Lynn was a model who has been murdered, and the story that plays out on the screen tells of the investigation into her demise and of the people most intimately involved in her rise and fall. Much of what transpires comes via a series of flashbacks courtesy of the interrogations of the main suspects at police headquarters. Most of the information, and therefore the impressions of the events and personalities, comes through the eyes of PR man Steve Christopher (Elliott Reid) and the victim’s sister Jill (Jeanne Crain). With the narrative nipping back and forth between past and present, all kinds of petty jealousies and rivalries are exposed. All the while, moving in and out of the shadows that surround the death of Vicki is the menacing yet awkward figure of lead detective Lt Ed Cornell (Richard Boone).

Established wisdom tends to hold that remakes pale in comparison with the works they seek to reimagine. My own experience, however, tells me that is not always the case, although there’s no getting away from the fact all of that is highly subjective. Still, I doubt one would find many viewers who would claim Vicki adds to, much less improves on, the version filmed a dozen years before. Both films derive from Steve Fisher’s novel and Dwight Taylor’s script with very little divergence on show. Harry Horner was an occasional director and Vicki is something of a workmanlike effort, with the odd instance of flair set off by Milton Krasner’s photography. In the main, it rarely grabs the attention and too many scenes exhibit a flatness that is vaguely disappointing.

That same year Jean Peters did good work in Niagara for Henry Hathaway and was even more impressive for Sam Fuller in Pickup on South Street. Admittedly, her role in this movie is limited to some extent but I thought her performance was just serviceable. I mean she comes across as attractive but I don’t get the sense of raw ambition that ought to underpin the character. Jeanne Crain fares better in the bigger and more grounded part as the surviving sister, although it’s not an especially complex role. This brings me to Richard Boone and Elliott Reid, and it’s hard not to have Laird Cregar and Victor Mature in mind while watching them work. Boone brings a different quality to his portrayal of Cornell, adopting a more buttoned up and physically restricted aura than was the case with Cregar. He spends much of his time with his head tilted ever so slightly down and the arms and elbows drawn in, like a man forever on the defensive, forever reining in dangerous impulses.  It’s an interesting approach and a valid one too in a part which demands a significant amount of pathos.

Elliott Reid, on the other hand, represents a major weakness at the heart of it all. Frankly, I do not see him as a leading man. In fact, I think the only other movie where I’ve seen him take the lead is The Whip Hand, a risible effort which his presence did little to improve. Reid’s forte was in supporting roles, particularly those which required a degree of smugness – he was fine in Woman’s World for Jean Negulesco and even better as the unctuous assistant prosecutor in Stanley Kramer’s Inherit the Wind. Support in this film comes via the ever excellent John Dehner, Casey Adams and a marvelously creepy Aaron Spelling.

Vicki came out on DVD years ago from Fox as an entry in their film noir line. Those titles tended to be handsome looking presentations and the transfer still holds up well with not very much in the way of damage, to my eye at least. It is not as strong a film as I Wake Up Screaming but it does have points in its favor – for one thing, Boone’s reinterpretation of the role of Cornell is never less than fascinating, as one would expect of that actor. I have to say I’m pleased that this movie is and has been accessible, even if it may never become a favorite. It’s worth checking out if you should come across it, just so long as you don’t pitch your hopes too high.

The Texas Rangers

There is something wildly entertaining about dipping into that era when Hollywood thought nothing of gleefully ripping pages if not whole chapters out of the history books in order to mix and match the characters, events and consequences the writers had decided would feature in their story. What makes it especially enjoyable is the fact this unapologetic grinding up facts had no agenda whatsoever, no nods to knowing, joyless postmodernism, nothing more in fact than a desire to present a piece of straightforward entertainment. The Texas Rangers (1951) works on the principle that the key to success is to pack as many big name outlaws as possible into the plot and have the hero take on this rogues’ gallery. If you are after an accurate depiction of the past, then it’s probably best to give this one a miss. If, on the other hand, you’re in the market for a pacy and uncomplicated western, this one will fit the bill.

Somewhat at odds with the fanciful nature of the tale which will unfold, the opening scenes attempt to place the characters in some sort of context. Suffice to say that we’re in Texas in the years following the Civil War and the Reconstruction. There is then a brief introduction to the main outlaws: Sam Bass (William Bishop) looks to be a model of charm and courtesy, smiling as he efficiently robs a train, only allowing the facade of politeness to drop momentarily as he ruthlessly guns down a less compliant passenger; John Wesley Hardin (John Dehner) is dapper, cool and devious, a gentlemanly killer; the most sadistic of all is Dave Rudabaugh (Douglas Kennedy), grinning maliciously as he savagely drives a knife through another man’s hand in the course of a not so friendly card game. Then there is Johnny Carver (George Montgomery) who, along with Buff Smith (Noah Beery Jr), runs into trouble during a botched bank raid. Actually, he runs into a bullet fired by a treacherous Sundance Kid (Ian Macdonald) and consequently ends up serving hard time as an accessory to murder.

So, with Texas descending into near anarchy as a result of the activities of the gang headed up by Sam Bass, the authorities have to be seen to act. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and Major John B Jones (John Litel) of the Texas Rangers has Carver and Smith released on probation, on condition they serve under him with the aim of smashing the power of the Bass gang. And that is essentially what it is all about, a not unfamiliar story of men with an unsavory past given an opportunity to redeem themselves by taking on and ultimately infiltrating a criminal organization. Along the way, there are enough  brawls, chases, shootouts, betrayals and twists to satisfy even the most demanding viewer.

Phil Karlson, working from a story by Frank Gruber and a script by Richard Schayer, rarely lets the action portrayed on screen pause for breath. Incident piles on top of incident and no situation is allowed to hang around till it grows unwelcome. The plot is tied to that classic theme of redemption which is never far from the surface in so many westerns of the 1950s, but it’s never particularly emphasized here. Nevertheless, it is present for those who want it, and I’m certainly a person who appreciates this aspect, even when (or perhaps because) it serves to ground the most escapist fare. For a movie that is almost determinedly lacking in pretension and which prides itself on its sense of urgency, The Texas Rangers looks both handsome and stylish. Karlson never misses a chance to employ a telling close-up, to shoot from an unexpected angle or to frame a scene in an interesting way.

George Montgomery’s laid-back style is used to fine effect in this movie, there’s an assurance coupled with exuberance about him, and when you factor in the easy grace with which he moves around the frame it’s evident how comfortable he was in a western setting. His two big dramatic scenes, played out with Jerome Courtland and Noah Beery respectively, are handled competently enough but the fact is that area wasn’t his strongest suit. Beery is his usual homespun self, appealingly diffident and upright. Of the outlaw band, William Bishop gets more screen time as befits his role and he’s fine, although there’s not the menace about him one might expect. However, that is certainly not the case with Douglas Kennedy. He looks and acts implacably mean, being responsible for, and seeming to relish, some of the more reprehensible pieces of villainy. John Dehner rarely fails to impress, even in minor roles, and he adds some scene-stealing polish to his part as the untrustworthy killer. Ian Macdonald scowls effectively and Jock Mahoney takes another step on the path that would lead him from stuntman to star. The only woman in the film is Gale Storm but her part as a newspaperwoman whose father was murdered by the Sundance Kid is sadly underdeveloped, tracing an arc from hostility to devotion that never feels the least bit convincing.

The Texas Rangers doesn’t appear to be available as a DVD or Blu-ray anywhere, or at least I haven’t been able to come across any releases. If anybody reading this happens to know of one, I’d be pleased to hear about it. However, it can usually be viewed online, and with satisfactory picture quality too. A good many of George Montgomery’s westerns are now available, although there are still a few notable absences such as this. Generally speaking, I think a lot of Columbia’s second string westerns don’t get a lot of love. Sure many of them are pretty frugal affairs, shot fast and sometimes featuring casts that won’t have the name recognition to make them easily marketable to a modern audience. That said, it’s worth remembering that movies of this type were the staples that kept the genre going for so long. The Texas Rangers is not a classic, but it is an attractive film that never wastes a moment of its 75 minute running time. Perhaps the biggest compliment I can pay is to say that it is simply a pleasure to watch.

Hell on Frisco Bay

So what do you want from a movie? Most of us will probably settle for an entertaining and competent piece of work that keeps us engaged for as long as the reels are turning. If there happens to be something in the mix that encourages us to think about some matter in a different light, or even simply encourages us to think, then that’s all to the good. Plenty of movies fulfill the first half of that equation and a respectable number will have enough of the second to elevate them above the routine or the run-of-the-mill. And then there is promise, and its deadly first cousin potential. Both of those may be hard to define but are, nevertheless, instantly recognizable, and both have colored responses to more than a few movies over the years. Hell on Frisco Bay (1955) certainly promises much, what with that cast and a plot derived from a William P McGivern novel. The end result? Well, it’s passable as entertainment and has a handful of themes sprinkled through the script that ought to have been explored further, but there is something vaguely unsatisfying about the whole affair.

Steve Rollins (Alan Ladd) is fresh out of San Quentin, having done five years for a crime he didn’t commit. He is still smarting over the loss of his freedom, the loss of his job and reputation, and also the loss of respect for his wife Marcia (Joanne Dru). She succumbed to weakness while he was inside and was unfaithful, meaning that Rollins’ dogged desire for vindication has an extra edge. He knows that the boss of the waterfront rackets Vic Amato (Edward G Robinson) was the figure responsible for the frame-up but finding a way to clear his name and bring it home to the mobster means tracking down certain men. One of them has disappeared, and is later confirmed to be dead, while his main dockland contact won’t be long in joining him. Despite the setbacks and the bitterness that is never far from the surface, Rollins bulldozes his way though the hoods and enforcers till he finds an opening. It will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with crime stories to learn that this opening gets busted wide open not merely as a result of the external pressure applied by Rollins, but via the scheming and antagonism seething within the criminals’ own closed circle.

I’ve seen Hell on Frisco Bay billed as a film noir, but I’m not convinced it really is. It is a crime story for sure, but neither the colorful ‘Scope visuals nor the overall tone of the piece recall noir to this viewer. I guess the presence of the leads, and the name of William P McGivern (Odds Against Tomorrow, Rogue Cop, The Big Heat) loom large and fuel that impression. While I don’t particularly care how or even if the movie is labeled, I will admit that those aforementioned factors raised my expectations. The plot, a typical McGivern tale of compromised cops, isn’t going to provide major surprises but a bigger problem is the flatness, the absence of (for the want of a better word) passion in its telling, and that’s not what I normally think of when approaching a Sydney Boehm script. There is of course an undercurrent of sadism to the needling relationship between Robinson and his top boy played by Paul Stewart. As well as that, the hypocrisy highlighted by Robinson’s outwardly devout domestic arrangements and his lusting after Stewart’s girlfriend (Fay Wray) adds another layer, but none of it feels especially compelling.

Director Frank Tuttle and cinematographer John Seitz enjoyed great success more than a decade earlier when they made This Gun for Hire with Alan Ladd. However, there is none of the freshness of that movie about Hell on Frisco Bay. Ladd was starting to look tired and dissipated at this point, not a major problem in itself given the background of his character, but despite his best efforts, I didn’t feel much of a spark about his quest for justice along the waterfront. Robinson fares better as the villain and there are a few nicely shot scenes juxtaposing the religious iconography around his home and the murderous intent he harbors there. He shares a few mean-spirited moments with Paul Stewart’s reluctant killer; the scene with them setting up a fateful hit as they verbally fence with one another while prowling around Fay Wray’s  tastefully feminine lounge as well as a subsequent piece of lethal horse-trading in Robinson’s kitchen gives another meaning to the term domestic suspense.

Joanne Dru was the top-billed actress in the movie and is handed an interesting back story, although this is never as fully explored as it might have been. Her role as a nightclub chanteuse means she gets to sing The Very Thought of You and It Had to Be You, although apparently dubbed by Bonnie Lee Williams on both. I don’t know if it’s down to the way Ladd’s character reacts to her throughout, but she seems ill-served by the script. Fay Wray is given a little more to work with as the former starlet now reduced to slumming with the waterfront hoods. In support, it is good to see William Demarest, Nestor Paiva, Willis Bouchey, Anthony Caruso, and a young Rod Taylor. I might also mention that Jayne Mansfield pops up in a brief bit part.

Hell on Frisco Bay has been released by the Warner Archive on both DVD and Blu-ray, so it’s easily accessible. I picked up the movie a few years ago based on the cast, the crew and the source material. I wouldn’t say I came to it hoping to have stumbled on some neglected gem – after all, those are not as common as we might like to believe – but I did think credits such as those it boasted would make it worthwhile viewing. Ultimately, while it is moderately entertaining and watching it is hardly a chore, it is not something I can see myself racing to return to. One to look out for should it appear in the broadcast schedules perhaps.

Some other views on the movie can be found at:
Vienna’s Classic Hollywood
Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings