Johnny Stool Pigeon

It’s interesting to watch movies that might be described as halfway house efforts, they have an air about them of remote outposts on clinging on at the frontier of genres, one eye fixed on a particular set of circumstances and the other looking in a different direction like a sort of cinematic Janus. Johnny Stool Pigeon (1949) has a touch of that, casting ahead to the rapidly approaching decade where the focus would shift firmly to tales of a society under threat from shadowy but large scale criminal organizations while still retaining a concern for the battered and bruised individuals who represent the life blood of the genre.

A federal sting aimed a netting a drugs courier just off a boat in San Francisco leads to the suspect taking a bullet during a chase through a dockside warehouse. The agent who had been hoping to make an arrest is Morton (Howard Duff) and he’s the insistent type. Running down the man who did the shooting is easy enough, but picking him up in order to apply a bit of pressure proves trickier. Organized crime is dependent on tip offs and betrayals, and so it is that word filters through of what the authorities have in mind. The result? Another mouth silenced and another link cut out of the chain leading back to the narcotics suppliers. This is all routine stuff so far, but the apparent brick wall confronting Morton calls for some creative thinking, and enlivens the story as a consequence. His reasoning is that if the organization can’t be broken from the outside, then it will have to be done from the inside. The problem of course is how to get in. The key to unlocking that particular door rests in the hands of Johnny Evans (Dan Duryea), a hood and gangster serving time in Alcatraz thanks to the efforts of Morton, and nursing the kind of deeply felt grudge one might expect. Conveniently, from Morton’s standpoint at any rate, Evans’ wife has recently died from the effects of drug addiction so there’s plenty of emotional leverage on hand. Forming an uneasy alliance, Morton (now going under the name of Doyle) and Evans head first to Vancouver in Canada and then back down south to Arizona on the trail of the head of the syndicate. While all this is taking place, there is an added complication provided by Terry (Shelley Winters), a girl keen to escape the clutches of the mob.

Frankly, the gangbusters element of the story is by the numbers stuff, well enough executed but hardly riveting. Any plot that makes use of the lawman going undercover trope naturally generates suspense and tension, and that is certainly true here. I guess the involvement of a potentially hostile figure such as that portrayed by Duryea adds a touch of uncertainty, although there aren’t really any jaw-dropping twists in store. For all that, the movie is entertaining in the way so many Universal-International crime pictures are. It displays a brisk lack of pretension, a utilitarian stylishness that is alluring. William Castle is best known these days for those horror and thriller movies he concentrated on from the late 1950s onward. However, his credits in the preceding years show the breadth of his body of work. He worked in many genres and deserves more recognition for the frequently tight and fast-moving westerns, adventures and crime movies he cut his teeth on. When Johnny Stool Pigeon was made he had just moved to Universal-International after spending years working on a number of series for Columbia, such as Crime Doctor (somebody please release a set of these enjoyable B pictures!) and The Whistler. The economical shooting and storytelling style of these low budget movies would stay with him and inform much of his subsequent work.

I have  seen and enjoyed so many Dan Duryea performances over the years. Broadly speaking, he tended toward two characteristic types. On the one hand, there was the sly, wheedling good-for-nothing, slouching from one cheap subterfuge to another. On the other hand, he could be a loud, booming braggart, a strutting peacock daring all to challenge his brashness. His role in Johnny Stool Pigeon is something of a hybrid, with a couple of real firecracker scenes that have him cutting loose and barking at Barry Kelley and Howard Duff respectively, as well as more subtle, yet paradoxically more powerful and affecting, moments such as his visit to the morgue to identify the body of his wife. Threaded trough the whole performance though is that air of tough melancholy he always wore. He had about him the aura of a man assailed by wry bitterness and relentlessly pursued by some nameless regret.

Howard Duff enjoyed a fairly successful run from the late 1940s till the middle of the next decade as a lead of the square -jawed variety. I wouldn’t say he had great range but he was an agreeable screen presence. He is rather aloof in Johnny Stool Pigeon, distant and frankly stiff in many scenes. In his defense, the role he was playing was that of a man in an especially precarious position, one who would have needed to maintain a cool and icy grip on himself at all times. Still, the contrast with Duryea’s full-blooded performance is marked. Shelley Winters weighs in with a credible mixture of street-smart and vulnerable, and her character’s influence on both her co-stars and the eventual resolution of the story is noteworthy. In support, John McIntire is typically impressive, his back-slapping bonhomie masking a dry, cold core. Tony Curtis, in one of his earliest appearances, has the role of a mute assassin. He may not have had any dialogue but he gets plenty of screen time to glower and brood.

Johnny Stool Pigeon was another movie that was impossible to view in anything other than the crummiest condition until Kino released it recently. It’s not going to make anyone’s list of the best films noir, and just about everyone involved would make stronger movies. Nevertheless, it is very watchable and enjoyable, brief and pacy and possessed of that appealing Universal-International vibe this viewer generally finds irresistible.

The Square Jungle

Hollywood in the 1950s seemed to fall in love with the idea of jungles, metaphorical ones at any rate. They ranged from the Asphalt to the Human, from the Blackboard to the Female, and those titles always carried at least a hint of film noir about them. The Square Jungle (1955) has been marketed as noir, but I don’t believe it fits in that category. Sure the trajectory followed by the protagonist takes a detour into the darker corners of despair and disgust, but it is ultimately headed in a different direction and is arguably best approached as a sporting melodrama that charts the sometimes painful journey from hubris to humility.

Eddie Quaid (Tony Curtis) is a man with ambitions, albeit modest ones at first. He’s working as a grocery store clerk and doing his best to offer moral support to his father, Pat (Jim Backus), who is weighed down by an unholy trinity of widowhood, unemployment and alcohol dependence. Desperate to haul his old man back from the brink after he’s been arrested for a drunken assault, and smarting from the consequent break-up of his relationship with Julie Walsh (Pat Crowley), he stumbles into the world of prizefighting. Since Eddie is clearly showing aptitude for the fight game, his father along with a sympathetic cop, McBride (Paul Kelly), persuade him to give it a go as a professional boxer. Under the watchful tutelage of Bernie Browne (Ernest Borgnine), an atypically learned and thoughtful man who is almost Socratic in his approach to training, Eddie (or Packy Glennon as he is known in the ring) rises fast through the ranks to earn a shot at the world title. This all occurs in the first twenty minutes or so of the movie, cutting through a lot of potentially tedious build-up and allowing the focus to rest firmly on Eddie’s period at the top, the three fights and their consequences that define him as a champion and, more importantly, as a man.

Many a boxing drama has focused on the corruption and underhanded shenanigans taking place in that shadowy world beyond the stark and floodlit square where the modern gladiators jog out to do battle with the promise of riches, glamor and celebrity always just one punch away. Yet there is little if any of that on display in The Square Jungle. Instead, it is replaced by a kind of ragamuffin romanticism, where pride, honor and self-respect are put to the test and are seen to win the day as opposed to the self-regarding venality that one normally associates with the fights.

I guess director Jerry Hopper would be classified as a journeyman, although that is not a term I am especially fond of due to that air of drabness it carries with it. He is never going to be regarded as a great and there isn’t any one film he made that commands our attention. Then of course there is also the fact that he worked so extensively in television, with many more credits in that medium than in the cinema, and that was rarely a career route that brought critical praise, or which permitted the creative breathing space essential to it for that matter. For all that though, I don’t think I have watched anything Hopper made which I didn’t enjoy on some level and those often undervalued television credits include some exceptionally fine work. One welcome feature of The Square Jungle is the pacing, the story maintains a strong sense of forward momentum all the way through, and I’ve already mentioned the brisk and efficient way the early part of the story is handled. Naturally, a boxing film needs to have well staged fight scenes and I think that is the case here, with the three major bouts being shot and edited in such a way as to impart a kind of brutal intimacy. The aftermath of each successive fight is vital to our understanding of the emotional, and indeed the spiritual, development of Eddie in particular. It’s quite subtly achieved given the nature of the subject matter and the brash milieu of fighters, trainers, promoters and sundry hangers-on. Personally, I was taken by the marvelous stillness that Hopper brought to the end of the fateful third fight, an all-encompassing silence that descends abruptly, the gravity of it all perfectly captured in the terseness of the referee and the wordless, tear-stained anguish of one woman’s face.

Eddie Quaid/Packy Glennon was the second time Tony Curtis would play a fighter, having already done so a few years earlier in Joseph Pevney’s Flesh and Fury. It is a good performance, charming throughout and moving smoothly from the open, selfless young man of the early scenes to the conceited and vaguely boorish champion he becomes before finally attaining wisdom and warmth, and winning a far more valuable prize in the process. Pat Crowley is quietly supportive as the girl he loves and who helps anchor him.

However, this is not a love story, but rather a look at how men can reach an accommodation with themselves, with their own masculinity in all its forms. As such, the relationship Eddie has with his father is a key one, the older man – who has tasted failure many times – living vicariously through his son’s success and the way that impacts on the younger man. Jim Backus was good in that kind of role. I find I tend to hold onto my first conscious impressions of actors and in the case of Backus that would have been his part as James Dean’s father in Rebel Without a Cause, so he is someone I automatically associate with weak but well-meaning figures. Then there is Ernest Borgnine, who could do no wrong around this time, as the saturnine philosopher carrying his own private guilt. In smaller roles, Paul Kelly, David Janssen, John Day, John Marley (long before he would wake up next to a horse’s head in The Godfather) and Leigh Snowden all make telling contributions. There is also a very brief cameo from former heavyweight champion Joe Louis.

Gradually, it is becoming easier to catch up with Universal-International titles that had long been hard to see. The Square Jungle has been released on Blu-ray in the US by Kino in one of their film noir collections and I’d like to think it might turn up in Europe or the UK at some point.It is a solid boxing drama with an attractive cast and a reliable director, and it’s well worth watching.

Kings Go Forth

There are simple, straightforward war movies, there are also films which see their stories played out against a backdrop of war, and then there are what I can only describe as genre hybrids. Kings Go Forth (1958) is one of those hybrids; it is not a full on war movie, meaning the plot is not driven solely, or even principally, by the battle scenes or the military strategy, yet these aspects are not relegated to the merely incidental either. In brief, it is a movie dealing with personal and social conflicts, all presented within the wider framework of the latter stages of the Second World War.

Not all wars are created equal, are they? While D-Day and the invasion of Northern France grabbed the headlines, and continues to garner attention, it is easy to forget that the drama and tragedy of WWII was also being played out in other theaters. Kings Go Forth unfolds in the south of the country where the US forces are in the process of trying to clear out the remaining pockets of Nazi resistance. Sam Loggins (Frank Sinatra) is a lieutenant in need of a new radio operator for his outfit. His voice-over narration in these early scenes make it clear that Britt Harris (Tony Curtis), the man who talks his way into the role, is a figure who will loom large in the subsequent events. He is brash and cocky, sure of himself yet essentially unknowable to others. Right from the beginning, Sam is aware that what is presented is largely a facade, an image offered up for public consumption with the goal of ensuring that what Britt wants, Britt gets. An apparently contradictory figure, he joined the army only as a last resort, having tried to bribe the draft board, but is not averse to indulging in showy heroics – dragging wounded men from a treacherous minefield, or braving machine gun fire to neutralize a pillbox. In short, as Sam himself noted at the outset, he is a man you notice. Well, it takes all kinds to make a world and the various peculiarities of character need not trouble anyone too much. Or that’s the way it seems for a time.

While these two central characters are shown¬† in sharp relief, the contrast only becomes an issue with the arrival on the scene of Monique (Natalie Wood). She was born an American, brought to Europe by her parents as a child, and is now practically a Frenchwoman. When Sam chances upon her during an impromptu leave he is smitten on the spot. He sees her again, and falls a little further, and all the while Monique remains half a step removed, charming and charmed yet cool. An evening in a cafe, where the wine and jazz form a potent cocktail has Britt meeting this pair, and so the final decisive point of the triangle is fixed in place. By the by, the reason for Monique’s reticence is revealed to be largely the product of her uncertainty of how Americans will react to her mixed race heritage. Sam is gradually accepting of this, having first forced himself to confront the prejudices he once entertained, but Monique finds herself dazzled by the glamor Britt seems to represent. In the end, the story boils down to a question of character and how it manifests itself. On an evening that promises death or glory deep in the enemy’s stronghold, truth emerges as the victor, but it is perhaps a bitter victory.

It has been some time since I last featured a movie from Delmer Daves. Over the years, I have developed a deep appreciation of this director and I count him among one of my favorites. His sympathetic handling of multifaceted and flawed characters caught up in situations which were correspondingly complex shows great maturity and I find his reluctance to sit in judgement enormously refreshing. Characters may be idealized by others within their world, but the viewer is presented with them as they are rather than as we might wish them to be. There is something soulful yet reassuring in the frank admission of imperfection and frailty; this is a filmmaker who not only understood but embraced humanity and sought to celebrate all its aspects. For me, such characteristics define the artist.

Kings Go Forth came in the middle of a particularly productive period in Frank Sinatra’s screen career. Some Came Running, The Joker is Wild and Pal Joey were all made in and around this time. It’s a fine performance, restrained, largely dialed down and frequently internalized. There is a good deal of pain in Sam Loggins, a hard-bitten personal diffidence riding side by side with a professional assurance, a tricky balance to achieve. I very much appreciate how the easy option of having the leading man simply do the right thing without thought was avoided, how he was made to look his own racial prejudices square in the face and acknowledge them for what they were. Perhaps we’re not talking redemption in the classical sense, but it is a matter of decency won after a hard battle, and the ending of the movie, in all its bittersweet melancholy and tantalizing optimism, is all the better for it. Nor is Natalie Wood asked to play any one-dimensional angel. Her hunger for acceptance draws her deep into a damaging and worthless relationship, blinding her to the artifice which is burrowing its way into her heart. It is an honest piece of work and, as with all forms of honesty, not always attractive. Tony Curtis is well cast too, coasting along on looks, style and polished patter, but never able to completely sell the lie to himself. As he sits in the clock tower with Sinatra, feeling the chill breath of fate creeping closer, his openness about his complete absence of character is very well realized – to watch him at this moment is to watch a man gazing deep within himself, and being appalled at the emptiness that he discovers. And finally, a word for Leora Dana, who is characteristically touching as Wood’s mother. If the only movies she had ever made were this one, 3:10 to Yuma and Some Came Running, then it would still constitute a fine career.

Kings Go Forth was an early release on DVD by MGM and looked good enough even though it was presented open-matte. There was a Blu-ray release by Twilight Time but I think that’s been out of print for some time now. However, there is a fine Blu-ray available in Germany, English-friendly, widescreen and generally very attractive. I freely admit that I am an unashamed fan of the work of Delmer Daves and I am well aware that this may color my view of his films. That said, I think Kings Go Forth is a terrific little movie and it comes highly recommended.