Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Thieves' Highway (1949)

It takes a lot of work to be a workingman in this film.

Kenny, reviewed on this site three weeks ago, was an incredibly funny, but also touching look at a content employee for an Australian portable toilet company.

Thieves' Highway, from director Jules Dassin (The Naked City, Riffi), paints a much bleaker picture of life as an average Joe just trying to make a buck.

In this 1949 release from Twentieth Century Fox, blue collar workers are ripped off, work long hours in dangerous conditions, get beat up and die. Happy Labour Day to you, too.

Nick Garcos (Richard Conte) returns home after a lengthy spell working on the sea. He's done well for himself, literally showering his parents and sweetheart Polly Faber (Barbara Lawrence) with money. The homecoming celebration doesn't last long once Nick learns his father lost his legs in a trucking collision.

Yanko Garcos (Morris Carnovsky) blames crooked fruit buyer Mike Figlia (Lee J. Cobb) for causing the collision that cost him his legs and a nice payout for services rendered.

Nick vows payback and swings into action. He wants to repossess his father's truck from Ed Prentiss (Millard Mitchell), but ends up going into business with him. Prentiss knows where they can score Golden Delicious apples and get them to market before anyone else. It's when these two men meet that audiences see another challenge for the workingman - getting stiffed. Slob (Jack Oakie) and Pete (Joseph Pevney) want their own deal with Prentiss, but he blows them off. They figure something is up and decide to tail him.

Garcos and Prentiss get their apples, but problems soon follow with their trucks and fatigue. Nick gets to market in San Francisco first where he encounters Figlia for himself. His reputation as a shyster is well-known, even the police know about his crooked dealings. Garcos wants a good price for his apples. Figlia is looking for an angle to take a bite out of Garcos' approach. Enter Rica (Valentina Cortese), a streetwalker who Garcos can't figure out. Is she trying to help him or get him killed?

Kenny was an easy character to love. He was a hard-worker and had a lot of funny things to say. It's not as easy to cheer for Garcos. This chap is not above using violence to settle scores. He's supposed to be marrying Polly, but is definitely attracted to Rica. Garcos is kind of dumb too. He makes a long-distance call in a restaurant telling Polly of his big cash score from Figlia. You think some of those diners might want to get their hands on his billfold, let alone Figlia?

Thieves' Highway offers several strong performances, especially from Conte (The Godfather, Ocean's Eleven) and Cobb (Call Northside 777, 12 Angry Men). Mitchell (Twelve O'Clock High) is solid as a veteran driver who is also a player when it comes to dealing with other truckers.

The Criterion Collection release of Thieves' Highway does a fine job of making cinematographer Norbert Brodine's work look top notch.

RATING: 8/10

FUN FACTS: Brodine was director of photography of Libeled Lady, one of this site's favorite films.

A.I. Bezzerides wrote the screenplay for Thieves' Highway. It's based on his book.

Two principal members of the cast are still alive at this writing: Valentina Cortese (b. 1923) and Barbara Lawrence (b. 1928). Lawrence also appeared in A Letter to Three Wives, reviewed earlier on this site.

Jack Oakie received an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor for The Great Dictator.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Nowhwere Boy (2009)

Nowhere Boy has something to say about John Lennon.

This solid 2009 effort from director Sam Taylor-Johnson, making her feature-film debut, explores a difficult time in the life of a teenaged Lennon. That drama makes for compelling viewing. The look at the birth of The Beatles is also fascinating to watch. Keep an eye out for how, and where, Lennon forms The Quarrymen.

He's living with his hard as nails aunt, Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas). She runs a tight ship. Her husband, George (David Threlfall) has a closer relationship with his nephew, but dies shortly after this story begins. Mimi wants John to get his education. He keeps getting suspended and burning letters from the school meant for her eyes.

It's a friend of Lennon's who tells him his mother, Julia (Anna-Marie Duff), lives within walking distance of Mimi's home. Much of Nowhere Boy explores the relationship between Lennon and the woman who gave him up to her sister's care. He's excited to find her. Julia is very different from her sister. She's a carefree spirit, loves rock and roll music over the classical music Mimi favours. She dances. She flirts. Julia teaches him to play the banjo. She's with John when he sees a newsreel clip of a young Elvis Presley driving the girls crazy. It's then he decides he wants to be follow in the King of Rock and Roll's footsteps.

There's continued tension at home with Mimi livid at John's cutting classes and stealing rides on the double-decker buses. He wants to move in with his mom, but her husband isn't keen on the idea. Lennon is a Nowhere Boy.

Much of the film is dedicated to the relationship between Lennon, his mother and his aunt. But Nowhere Boy also explores the launch of Lennon's first band, The Quarrymen, that comes to include Paul McCartney (Thomas Brodie-Sangstar) and George Harrison (Sam Bell).

There's a quick nod to a famous photograph taken of The Quarrymen performing at a church social in July 1957, the day Lennon and McCartney met. Nowhere Boy also includes The Quarrymen recording their first song, In Spite of all the Danger, that was included on the first anthology album by The Beatles in 1995.

Taylor-Johnson delivers a strong performance as a young Lennon offering hints of his humour and, at times, his nastiness towards others. There's flashes of Lennon's wit with language too. Scott Thomas offers a human side besides Mimi's strict personality. Duff is a standout as Julia, a woman who loves life, but has made some bad choices.

Nowhere Boy is a hit.

RATING: 8/10

FUN FACTS: Thomas Brodie-Sangster played another major historical figure. He was a young Hitler in Hitler: The Rise of Evil.

Nowhwere Boy is the only film credit for Sam Bell.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Kenny (2006)

This Australian comedy about a man who services porta-potties should a-pee-l to many movie-goers.

Folks, this is one of the funniest comedies this dedicated film fan has watched in a long while. There was such a ballyhoo when Crocodile Dundee with Paul Hogan hit North American screens in 1986. Where was the heavy box office traffic for this fantastic comedy that followed 20 years later?

Kenny offers many, many laugh-out loud moments. But there's also a tender side too, with a hero whose personal life is, in many ways, in the toilet.

Kenny (Shane Jacobson) works for Splash Down in Melbourne. The business rents portable toilets for events such as music festivals, air shows and horse races. Kenny and his crew set the loos up before anyone else arrives and take them down when everyone else has left. He notes his job offers him an opportunity to work outside, see many events others don't, but it's lonely too.

"No one's ever impressed with what you do," he says early on in the 99-minute film.

Kenny blames his job for his wife leaving him after 14 years. He observes people don't want to hug him or shake his hand. His bitter father (real-life dad Ronald Jacobson) urges him to get another job. He's embarrassed at what his son does for a living.

"I didn't put you through school for you to become a f------ glorified turd burglar," his father berates him during a rare visit to his trailer home.

His wife's death has distanced relations between him and his two sons. Kenny notices the relationship between the trio is "Christmas cards at 20 paces." His brother wants him to change when he shows up in his work clothes at a bar for a birthday bash.

Shot in documentary style, kenny follows our hero on the job as he deals with his employees, one worries a lot, a new hire works hard, but doesn't have a good feel for good customer relations. A university student, who pleaded for a job so he could earn some extra money, balks at the job's demands including retrieving a woman's wedding ring that's ended up in one of Splash Down's toilets.

"He's probably studying to be an accountant or something," Kenny notes with disdain. "He can't even clean a s---ter."

"I thought this would be corporate bathrooms," the student counters.

"You reckon all the girls on Virgin Airlines are virgins?" replies Kenny.

There's vandalism to clean up, fueled by what Kenny notes as revelers who are "full of the Batman juice" or have eaten "fruity disco biscuits." One chap notes, with a black marker, he "woz here" in Kenny's portable toilet.

"This is his claim to fame," Kenny notes as he scrubs up the mess. "He's been to our s---ter."

The film's best sequence when Kenny and company are at a stock car racing event. Punks in one area of the venue regularly torch the portable toilets at the evening's end. Kenny wants to end the tradition with some careful strategy.

"Our job's to save the toilets," he tells his staff.

Bad timing on the race track, fisticuffs, Molotov cocktails and an unexpected customer all add up to an extremely hilarious scene conceived by Jacobson and his brother, Clayton, who also directs.

"No man should be set on fire to save one of his s---ters," Kenny says after a limb becomes engulfed in flames.

Kenny's a big guy, but he's a softy at heart. When his boss taps him to attend the Pumper and Cleaner Environmental Expo International in Nashville, his friendly, outgoing manner attracts a fine-looking stewardess and the start of a relationship with several Japanese businessmen who need many deluxe portable toilets complete with televisions.

Kenny is a celebration of the working man doing essential work that no one else respects. It's about taking pride in one's talents and not refusing to change careers because of what others think.

"Plumbing is all I've ever known, but I don't think I've ever been envious of anyone else cause this is the life I got," he says.

Bodily fluid humour gets a lot of play in mostly youth-oriented comedies these days. Here's a film centred on a job dealing with urine and feces, but there's little in-your-face grossness here. There's a brief reference to pee on the floor with Kenny lamenting the difficulty some men have in hitting the mark.

Kenny is a great comedy with a heart. Watch this film.

RATING: 10/10

FUN FACTS: Shane Jacobson appeared in the 2012 reboot, The Bourne Legacy.

Much of Kenny's cast is on screen for the first, and only, time including Alf Scerri and Glenn and Haley Preusker.

Vicki Musso is Kenny's cranky ex-wife and the woman who loses her wedding ring in the toilet. Thank you, Internet Movie Database!

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)

It's worth the wait to see one of the most famous screen shots of James Cagney near this film's finale.

His character, Rocky Sullivan (Cagney), faces the death penalty for killing two crime associates followed by a handful of police officers in a last-ditch effort to escape justice.

Watch, and savour, the iconic shot of a defiant Sullivan walking in the shadows towards the electric chair. This is great stuff.

Angels with Dirty Faces is a good, but not great, film. There's no big surprises in this film's plot, but what a cast.

Sullivan and childhood pal Jerry Connolly (Pat O'Brien) followed very different career paths. The pair grew up poor. Both stole, but Connolly only put his hands on things he needed to survive. Sullivan was a little more enterprising.

When an attempted theft of pens from a rail car goes bad, it's Sullivan who ends up in a juvenile detention centre. Connolly escaped police. The stint is the first of several arrests for Sullivan as he gradually gets involved in more serious crimes.

Connolly took a very different career path and became a priest. He's rector of a Catholic parish in his old neighbourhood. Father Jerry and Rocky get re-acquainted when the convict gets released from prison. He rents a room from the girl he pestered as a youngster, Laury Ferguson (Ann Sheridan), now a fine-looking lady. Sullian is interested. Ferguson, not so much.

Sullivan is eager to see his crooked lawyer, James Frazier (Humphrey Bogart), who's holding on to $100,000 of his cash. Hey, this is the Great Depression and that's serious scratch. Frazier, now managing a ritzy nightclub under boss Mac Keefer (George Bancroft), is less-than-pleased to see Sullivan is still alive. He's keen to put Sullivan away for good.

Father Jerry is doing his best to encourage a gang of street toughs to live honest lives and steer clear of crime's allure. But that job is hard to do when Sullivan shows up sporting fine threads and a pocketful of bills. Father Jerry encourages his old friend to be a mentor to the kids. Sullivan is persuaded, somewhat. When Keefer figures out a way to get Sullivan in trouble, it's Rocky who turns to the kids to keep his cash stash safe.

Rocky is back in the big money. Laury, who lost her husband to crime, starts to warm to imagining a life with him. Father Jerry is determined not to be wooed by Sullivan's generous offers of cash help to build a new recreation centre for youth. What good will it do, he reasons, when that site is surrounded by people profiting from crime? Instead, he vows to bring Sullivan and his crowd down.

It's tough to see legendary tough guy Bogart as a cowardly lawyer who mops his brow and begs for his life when he's in danger. But, as film historian Dana Polan notes in a commentary accompanying this 1938 film from Michael Curtiz, he was still being groomed for stardom by Warner Brothers. Casablana, Key Largo and The Treasure of the Sierre Madre would follow.

Cagney is the best thing in this film. He's tough. He's funny. There's still some good in a guy who turned to crime many years before.

RATING: 7.5/10

FUN FACTS: Curtiz would go on to direct Bogart in Casablanca.

Cagney and O'Brien reunited more than 40 years later for Ragtime.

George Bancroft was Curley in John Ford's Stagecoach.

Billy Halop, leader of the Dead End Kids in Angels with Dirty Faces, played recurring character Bert Munson in television's All in the Family.

Frankie Burke made his film debut playing a young Rocky Sullivan. He appeared in 18 films between 1938 and 1941. He died in 1983 at age 67.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

is all over the map.

This film noir steers into melodrama, courtroom drama and a very strange love story.

Frank Chambers (John Garfield) has itchy feet. This guy keeps moving from town to town, job to job.

When he gets dropped off at a roadside diner, he finally finds a reason to stay in one place for awhile.

Business owner Nick Smith (Cecil Kellaway) needs a hired hand to pump gas and serve burgers to customers. It's not so much Nick's offer of employment, but his drop-dead gorgeous young wife Cora (Lana Turner) that Frank likes.

Turner makes a great screen entrance when her tube of lipstick rolls down the cafe floor to Frank. The camera pans along the floor and up to Cora's very nice legs.

Frank doesn't waste much time making a move on Mrs. Smith. These two characters supposedly love each other, but it looks more like lust.

Cora and Frank conspire to off clueless Nick. This chap has no clue of the illicit goings-on with his wife and the hired help.

Now, this is a film noir so chances are things are not going to work out as planned. A first attempt to off Nick is botched. District attorney Kyle Sackett (Leon Ames) gets suspicious about Frank's activities at the roadside business. A court case and legal wranglings follow.

Hume Cronyn shines as defence attorney Arthur Keats. Present-day audiences know him for Ron Howard's Cocoon. But check out his dramatic work in The Postman Always Rings Twice. He's cocky. He's conniving. He pulls off some great strategic moves in the courtroom.

Keats taps ex-cop Ezra Kennedy (Alan Reed) for some help to save his case. There are a few moments in Postman when reality seems to be miles away from what happens on the screen. Watching Frank whup a beefy police officer is one of them.

Postman keeps turning in directions audiences may not expect. This movie-goer was shaking his head at times thinking things were getting a little silly on this screen take on James M. Cain's book. The twist ending has some punch and we finally get to hear the postman reference.

RATING: 7.5/10

FUN FACTS: John Garfield and Cecil Kellaway are both two-time Academy Award nominees. Garfield was recognized for his work in Body and Soul and Four Daughters. Kellaway received nods for The Luck of the Irish and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.

Leon Ames' last role was in Francis Ford Coppola's Peggy Sue Got Married (1986).

Actress Audrey Totter is still alive. She played Madge Gorland, the woman Frank picks up when Cora leaves town, in The Postman Always Rings Twice. She'll celebrate her 94th birthday on Dec. 20, 1918. Totter, like Cronyn, has a smaller role but she definitely stands out in this film. Wow.

Alan Reed is the voice of Fred Flintstone.

NOT-SO-FUN FACT: Garfield died in 1952. He was just 39.