Tag Archives: Gloria Grahame

Naked Alibi (1954, Jerry Hopper)

The first half hour of Naked Alibi–the film runs just under ninety minutes so the entire first third–is separate from the remainder. Set in a small city (shot on the backlot, but rather well thanks to Russell Metty’s glorious photography), chief of detectives Sterling Hayden has been getting a lot of heat over police brutality. The bleeding hearts just don’t understand how hard it can be. Not even after someone starts killing cops.

The film is really, really spare. There’s not just no fat on the script, there’s not always enough meat. So there’s no reconciliation between police commissioner Fay Roope riding Hayden for police brutality–even though Hayden’s tactics appear just to be due process and self-defense–with Hayden’s inability to catch the cop killers. Hayden’s got a prime suspect–local baker Gene Barry, who threatened the lives of each of the murdered cops. But Barry says he’s a good guy and everyone (meaning wife Marcia Henderson and lawyer Paul Levitt) agrees.

Of course, Barry’s exceptionally suspicious, has no real alibi for the murders–it’s never clear why his alibi is Naked–and appears to be at least psychologically abusive to Henderson. It turns out she’s the luckier of his two ladies, but more on that development in a bit.

The first half hour introduces Barry, introduces Hayden, introduces the cops, kills the cops, starts Hayden’s investigation, fires Hayden, brings in P.I. Don Haggerty to assist Hayden in an off-the-books investigation, and ends with Barry running off to the Mexican border to destress.

Barry’s not just suspicious, he’s violent, controlling, and manipulative. Though the manipulative stuff doesn’t really work because he’s not coy about it. He manipulates through violence and enforced control. The script asks way too much in the way of disbelief suspension. Director Hopper is no help with it either. For whatever reason, he can’t direct interiors. He does the most boring composition inside. Outside, Naked Alibi looks great. Inside, it’s a complete yawn.

Worse, he’s got forceful performances from both Barry and Hayden and doesn’t showcase them in those boring interior scenes either. There’s all this energy present, with Hopper seemingly disinterested in framing it well.

When the film gets to the Mexican border, there are big changes. The exterior shots are even better–Tijuana stands in for “Border City”–with these deeply composed shots. Metty’s photography gets even better and the script slows down enough and focuses; it doesn’t matter if Hopper doesn’t direct exposition or banter well.

Gloria Grahame plays a nightclub singer who Barry romances, terrorizes, and physically abuses. No longer trying to play evil but nice and instead just evil, Barry is terrifying. Especially since things never go Hayden’s way. He’s not particularly good at the detective stuff and he’s got the street smarts of a three-card monte mark. He’s just right.

But Grahame ends up being the closest thing to a main character. She gets the most character development, which Grahame ends up essaying far better than the film deserves. By the end, the script’s caught up with her and holds her back, but for a while, Grahame transcends the spare, sometimes lazy material.

The filmmaking and acting make Naked Alibi. The script’s got a decent enough detective investigation, but very little else. The finale is–while extremely effective and beautifully shot–a complete disappointment. There’s been no character development on Hayden. He’s not a cipher, he’s a blank. Hayden brings a lot of righteousness and enough hints of charm to it, but there’s nothing there. Whether he’s succeeding, failing, or bleeding to death, Hayden’s always exactly the same.

Grahame’s got stuff going on under the surface, Barry’s just getting more and more dangerous. And there’s really no one else. There are some recurring supporting cast members–Chuck Connors, Billy Chapin–but they don’t have much to do. Naked Alibi doesn’t need them to do much. It’s got one thing; reveal Barry enough Hayden can arrest him.

Things get really good about an hour in and it seems like Naked Alibi might add up in the end. Plotting overcomes problematic scene details. Then the finale disappoints, even though it features Hopper’s best direction (of an action sequence anyway), and is beautifully shot.

Still, it’s an engaging noir, with good (but unfortunately uneven thanks to the script and Hopper) performances. And it’s got that Russell Metty photography. Hopper’s direction doesn’t deserve that photography.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Jerry Hopper; screenplay by Lawrence Roman, based on a story by J. Robert Bren and Gladys Atwater; director of photography, Russell Metty; edited by Al Clark; produced by Ross Hunter; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Sterling Hayden (Joe Conroy), Gloria Grahame (Marianna), Gene Barry (Al Willis), Marcia Henderson (Helen Willis), Don Haggerty (Matthews), Billy Chapin (Petey), Max Showalter (Det. Lt. Parks), Chuck Connors (Capt. Kincaide), Stuart Randall (Chief Babcock), Paul Levitt (Frazier), and Fay Roope (Commissioner O’Day).


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It's a Wonderful Life (1946, Frank Capra)

It’s a Wonderful Life is going to be a tough one. When I was a kid, during the public domain days, Wonderful Life was omnipresent. It became a joke because of that omnipresence. But also because it’s undeniably sappy. And it has angels in it. It’s so saccharine, I didn’t even notice my eyes tear up for the finish. It’s so devastating, I also didn’t notice when they teared up at Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed on the phone. Because It’s a Wonderful Life has all these things going on and some of them don’t actually interact with the other, which might be director Capra’s greatest achievement with the film. It’s well-intentioned, feel-good, historically relevant character study as epic. It’s a Wonderful Life is an epic. It’s a short one–the film speeds by in its 130 minutes–but it’s an epic.

The film has four credited screenwriters–including Capra–and a legion of uncredited helpers. The film has the rather expedient structure of heavenly intervention. Let’s face it–God magic is the best magic–and Wonderful Life is aware of the promise it’s making with God magic. A Greek chorus would probably be less awkward, especially since there’s angel bickering. Mind you, angel bickering shows up before Jimmy Stewart. Jimmy Stewart doesn’t appear until twelves minutes into the picture. And it’s all about him. Jimmy Stewart doesn’t start his character–Robert J. Anderson starts the character and it’s great. The opening scenes of It’s a Wonderful Life are phenomenal. Capra goes all out with it.

Because most of It’s a Wonderful Life concentrates on Stewart and Reed, which is great because they’re amazing together and if it weren’t for the the last third of the film, Reed would easily give the best performance. The way she watches Stewart is exceptional. It’s a Wonderful Life has some strange cuts–apparently Capra even processed zoomed for emphasis–but the sound design always carries it. The film’s setting is about its sound, about its residents’ voices. Capra brings characters back in at just the right moment, in just the right scene, so the nightmare sequence at the end even scarier. Anyway, the sound and Reed. Capra will go for these different takes, jarring the viewer and forcing a reconsideration of the character. With Reed, it’s a little different. Capra’s direction of Reed during the courtship is about making her the film’s center.

Once Stewart and Reed get married, there’s a handoff to Stewart. Reed literally disappears. Capra figures out a way to show she’s still essential, but she doesn’t have to be omnipresent. There’s a lot of frantic qualities to It’s a Wonderful Life. It’s like the screwball comedy came home from the war.

So around halfway in, the film enters a different relationship with its protagonist. After Stewart being crushed again and again in the first half, the film has to show him get some reward. It’s a Wonderful Life is a mix of pragmatism, hopefulness, and cynicism. Stewart has to live up to the promise of the character before he showed up on screen.

Stewart has to make the viewer dislike him. The scene where he terrorizes the family is so freaky. The architecture designs, given room with the family’s things, are tragic. It answers a question It’s a Wonderful Life told the audience to ignore–sure, Reed’s actually perfect, but would Stewart have made it if he’d gotten away from home? Yeah. But he’s not even angry right, because when he’s angry, he’s supposed to be telling Reed he doesn’t need her and everyone knows he’s lying and is supposed to know he’s lying. He’s betraying the viewer’s expectation–and Capra knows how to do it too. The film’s a wonderful mix of sensibilities. Capra changes the pace, the tone. He introduces memorable characters in the second half. He doesn’t care. It’s awesome.

The nightmare part–does it even have an agreed upon term (it better not be some alternate timeline thing)–is this great twist. We’d been promised God magic and what did we get. Henry Travers, who looks as adorable as he sounds. Travers gets very little screen time and a phenomenal introduction. Capra still has these amazing scene constructions for the finale. And I think It’s a Wonderful Life, in terms of acts, fits Dan O’Bannon’s second act to third act transition mark better than anything else. The bridge. It’s Capra trying some things he’d tried before without success and scoring, time and again.

Very off track, which is the thing about It’s a Wonderful Life–there’s too much. There’s so much to process, so much to appreciate, so much to consider. It’s impossible for me to watch it without thinking about it in terms of anticipation and recollection. I don’t even think I watched it in order when I first saw it. Or it had been cut down to fit a two-hour block and was missing a bunch. I’ve been thinking about how the film works since I was a kid. It’s brilliant. Capra does it. He goes for it, he does it.

Great supporting performances from Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, especially Gloria Grahame. Frank Faylen and Ward Bond are awesome. H.B. Warner, Samuel S. Hinds. Everyone else but especially those people.

Technically outstanding, especially William Hornbeck’s editing and Clem Portman and Richard Van Hessen’s sound. They make Capra’s forceful moves work.

Dimitri Tiomkin ’s score actually doesn’t help with those forceful moves, but enables them further. Only then that great scene construction brings it through. It’s a Wonderful Life is like shifting plates in perfect rhythm.

And now I’m never going to write about it again because it’s all I’d want to do.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Frank Capra; screenplay by Jo Swerling, Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, and Capra, based on a story by Philip Van Doren Stern; directors of photography, Joseph F. Biroc and Joseph Walker; edited by William Hornbeck; music by Dimitri Tiomkin; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring James Stewart (George Bailey), Donna Reed (Mary Hatch), Lionel Barrymore (Mr. Potter), Thomas Mitchell (Uncle Billy), Henry Travers (Clarence), Beulah Bondi (Mrs. Bailey), Frank Faylen (Ernie), Ward Bond (Bert), Gloria Grahame (Violet), H.B. Warner (Mr. Gower), Todd Karns (Harry Bailey), Samuel S. Hinds (Pa Bailey), and Robert J. Anderson (Little George).


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Song of the Thin Man (1947, Edward Buzzell)

Song of the Thin Man has a lot of strong sequences and the many screenwriters sting them together well enough, but can’t figure out a pay-off. Some of the problem seems to be the brevity–while director Buzzell does an adequate job and Charles Rosher’s cinematography is good, none of the scenes end up having much weight.

The film does give William Powell and Myrna Loy more to do in regards to their parenting–with Dean Stockwell as their son–they have less to do as far as investigating. Song runs less than ninety minutes and even another ten of a good mystery would help immensely. All of those really good sequences are either comedic parenting ones or a single “race the clock” one. Loy excels in the latter.

There are just too many suspects and not enough time spent on them. The script sets up the suspects in the first few scenes and it plays efficiently enough, but then keeps everyone too suspicious to be sympathetic. The script works against itself and Buzzell isn’t at all the director to bring it together.

Of the supporting cast members, Keenan Wynn and Jayne Meadows have the most to do and are the best. Wynn is Powell and Loy’s guide through the nightlife, with the script cutting a lot of corners as to how that tour progresses. It’s either lazy writing or lazy producing. Either way, it hurts the film.

But Song is still entertaining, it just easily could’ve been better.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Edward Buzzell; screenplay by Steve Fisher, Nat Perrin, James O’Hanlon and Harry Crane, based on a story by Stanley Roberts and characters created by Dashiell Hammett; director of photography, Charles Rosher; edited by Gene Ruggiero; music by David Snell; produced by Perrin; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring William Powell (Nick Charles), Myrna Loy (Nora Charles), Keenan Wynn (Clarence ‘Clinker’ Krause), Dean Stockwell (Nick Charles Jr.), Phillip Reed (Tommy Edlon Drake), Patricia Morison (Phyllis Talbin), Leon Ames (Mitchell Talbin), Gloria Grahame (Fran Ledue Page), Jayne Meadows (Janet Thayar), Ralph Morgan (David I. Thayar), Bess Flowers (Jessica Thayar) and Don Taylor (Buddy Hollis).


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THIS FILM IS ALSO DISCUSSED IN SUM UP | THE THIN MAN.

The Cobweb (1955, Vincente Minnelli)

A more appropriate title might be The Trouble with the Drapes, but even with the misleading moniker, The Cobweb is a good Cinemascope drama. Cinemascope dramas went out some time in the mid-1960s. Vincente Minnelli is great at them. In The Cobweb, he turns a little story (I can’t believe it’s from a novel–it must have had a lot more on the characters, since the present action is incredibly limited) into a big movie. Richard Widmark doesn’t hurt. Even as a caring psychiatrist, Widmark amplifies the film. Nothing he does–except for one scene, his performance is understated–but something about his presence. His and Lauren Bacall’s. They signal big Cinemascope drama. So does Leonard Rosenman’s score. Rosenman brings the music up for all the characters’ emotions and, since some of the characters do a lot solo, there’s quite a bit of the music. Only once does it get a little too much, when Gloria Grahame (as Widmark’s wife; Bacall’s the nurse he likes too much) is freaking out. Oddly, the dialogue plays against the omnipresent music. The Cobweb has very delicate–and very good–dialogue. It’s one of the reasons the film succeeds: good dialogue performed by good actors makes even the most banal story involving. Of course, it doesn’t hurt The Cobweb pulls itself out from its third act spiral.

There’s not much going on in the film–it really is all about the fallout of buying new drapes for a psychiatric clinic–and it’s the characters keeping it moving. At the end, there needs to be a resolution and so–I assume it’s from the book, but it’s funny enough it might be a filmic innovation–things get resolved. Cinemascope dramas always resolve nicely at the end, part of the genre requirements. But The Cobweb‘s resolution is too easy. It’s too abbreviated. But at the last moment, in a very nicely timed scene, it pulls off a great close.

John Houseman produced the film, which might account for Mercury Theatre member Paul Stewart’s too small role, and maybe Houseman’s involvement accounts for some of the gentleness in the picture. The scenes with Widmark and his son playing chess or talking are some of the film’s most effective, because they’re–for the majority of the running time–the only real insight we get in to Widmark’s feelings. The rest of the time, until he and Bacall get inappropriate, he’s too busy worrying about his patients. Grahame’s really good in a difficult, unlikable role, and managing to keep the character sympathetic by the end of the film is a real achievement on Grahame’s part. Bacall’s good tog, but her character gets reduced into an “other woman” role (but she has a great exit). Other exceptional performances (they’re all good) are Charles Boyer and Lillian Gish. Boyer has a slightly more difficult role, but Gish is more impressive, maybe just because I’m unfamiliar with her work.

There’s a little bit too much going on in The Cobweb. There’s easily material for three films in here–Widmark and Grahame, Bacall’s character needs a whole picture, and John Kerr and Susan Strasberg’s mental patient romance deserves one too (Kerr’s real impressive and it’s he and Grahame who get the film off to its good start). It’s an imperfect Cinemascope drama, though a great example of one, but still a satisfying experience.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Vincente Minnelli; screenplay by John Paxton, from a novel by William Gibson; director of photography, George J. Fosley; edited by Harold F. Kress; music by Leonard Rosenman; produced by John Houseman; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Richard Widmark (Dr. McIver), Lauren Bacall (Meg Rinehart), Gloria Grahame (Karen McIver), Charles Boyer (Dr. Devanal), Lillian Gish (Victoria Inch), John Kerr (Steven Holte), Susan Strasberg (Sue Brett), Oscar Levant (Mr. Capp), Tommy Rettig (Mark), Paul Stewart (Dr. Wolff), Jarma Lewis (Lois Demuth), Adele Jergens (Miss Cobb), Edgar Stehli (Mr. Holcomb), Bert Freed (Ave Irwin) and Fay Wray (Edna Devanal).


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