Tag Archives: William Bendix

Lifeboat (1944, Alfred Hitchcock)

Lifeboat never feels stagy, which is one of the film’s greatest successes. The entire thing takes place in a single lifeboat, with director Hitchcock not doing many medium or long shots of the lifeboat exterior. All the action is with the actors, Hitchcock using distinctive composition–Glen MacWilliams’s glorious photography helping quite a bit, of course–to work up a visual rhythm. Jo Swerling’s screenplay is mostly dialogue, but the narrative rhythm isn’t in the cadence of the lines or even in what character gets what material, it’s in the characters themselves. The script’s narrative focusing is its greatest strength and greatest asset to the film.

Because there’s only so much the characters in Lifeboat can do to influence events. They survive the ship’s sinking by chance, they survive on the lifeboat by chance. There is a certain predictability to the film and the characters. But then the first act does everything to establish them as not being predictable. Lifeboat’s biggest twist–maybe only twist–is one of the characters not being predictable. Hitchcock and Swerling aren’t so much fooling the audience as not even trying to give them enough information.

There’s almost no minutiae in Lifeboat. There’s sometimes expository dialogue covering what’s happened offscreen since a scene transition, but Hitchcock and Swerling have zero interest in showing the characters’ daily chores to maintain on the lifeboat. Lifeboat isn’t about minutiae, it’s about big ideas and as big of character drama as Hitchcock can do in confined space.

The survivors on the lifeboat are a swath of Allied civilians. Tallulah Bankhead is a celebrity columnist, John Hodiak is one of the crew, so are William Bendix, Hume Cronyn, and Canada Lee. Mary Anderson’s a nurse. Henry Hull’s a millionaire industrialist. Heather Angel’s British and heading back from New York. And Walter Slezak is the Nazi sailor they rescue.

One of the script’s nicest tricks is having Hodiak, Bendix, Cronyn, and Lee all have an indeterminately long history together. They’ve known each other for years. Helps when revealing character backstory. It can come up in conversation naturally. Bankhead and Hull know each other too. And then it turns out Bankhead speaks German and offers Slezak a sympathetic ear.

Lifeboat keeps petty in-fighting to a minimum. The characters are too desperate to be petty (even when it seems like they might be acting so). And everyone gets a nice arc. Nine characters, nine separate arcs (with some overlapping); all in ninety-six minutes. Hitchcock and Swerling seem to know they can only last in such a confined space for so long.

The big dramatic in-fighting scenes–the film’s set pieces (an argument is more compelling than a storm hitting the boat)–are fantastic. Sometimes character development points with intersect in these scenes. Eventually there’s some pairing off amongst the survivors and it changes how things play, not just to the audience, but to the other characters. And never stagy.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t add up to as much as Hitchcock and Swerling might hope. The ending is large scale action, followed immediately by a large scale morality message. Because Lifeboat is about big ideas, particularly in the treatment of Nazi Slezak–Hodiak, Bendix, and Cronyn are on one side, Bankhead and Hull are on the others. It’s the snobs versus the slobs. Hodiak has some great scenes arguing with the snobs at the beginning. And it turns out to develop into a lot more.

Anderson, Lee, and Angel are basically on the sidelines during the big idea scenes. There’s even some commentary about why they’re on the sidelines, when Lifeboat still seems a lot more ambitious in its progressive presentation of reality than it turns out to be. There are some great approaches and details in the film, but they’re not the point. With nine characters and ninety-six minutes–and maybe four bigger parts–the supporting material needs to be good. Appearing ambitious and being at least somewhat successful makes a lot of impression.

And it sometimes gives the actors great material.

Bankhead and Hodiak are the stars. Bendix and Hull are the main support. Slezak next. Then everyone else. Though Cronyn (doing a totally fine but peculiar English accent) does go sweet on Anderson, which gives them a little more time.

Bankhead’s good. Her character’s wobbly at times–particularly at the end–but Bankhead’s good enough to cover. Hodiak’s similiar, though it’s his dialogue–he has some big speeches–to wobble. Hitchcock doesn’t direct for the performance and the dialogue sometimes needs that touch. Bendix is awesome, but his part’s not great. Hull’s fine. He always comes through. Same with Slezak.

More sympathetic direction would probably have helped Hull. It’s the big idea speeches. Hitchcock can’t figure out how to do them. They need to be rousing and patriotic while still vaguely humanist and he sort of just pauses for them. He makes up for it in the next scene, usually with some great overlapping dialogue shots, but Lifeboat’s a propaganda picture. Hitchcock tries to ignore the propaganda instead of accepting it.

The uneven tone hurts the end of the film, which has already been through a way too rushed second-to-third act transition.

Excellent direction from Hitchcock, great photography, great performances. Fine script. Lifeboat’s about as good as a straight propaganda picture can get.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock; screenplay by Jo Swerling, based on a story by John Steinbeck; director of photography, Glen MacWilliams; edited by Dorothy Spencer, music by Hugo Friedhofer; produced by Kenneth Macgowan; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Tallulah Bankhead (Connie Porter), John Hodiak (John Kovac), Henry Hull (Charles J. Rittenhouse), Walter Slezak (Willi), Hume Cronyn (Stanley Garrett), Mary Anderson (Alice MacKenzie), Canada Lee (Joe Spencer), Heather Angel (Mrs. Higley), and William Bendix (Gus Smith).


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Detective Story (1951, William Wyler)

Detective Story, the film, is William Wyler’s “production” of Sidney Kingsley’s play of the same title. Philip Yordan and Robert Wyler adapted the play. Wyler directed and produced the film. It is a stage adaptation and proud of it. The phrasing above is directly adapted from how the film opens and credits Wyler and Kingsley in the opening titles. One card: Wyler, Kingsley, Detective Story. Only it comes after the headlining cast title card: Kirk Douglas, Eleanor Parker, William Bendix. Detective Story is an extremely controlled viewing experience from the start.

Most of the film takes place inside the detective’s office of a police station. There are a handful of locations around the station, but Wyler sticks with the detective’s office. He and cinematographers Lee Garmes and John F. Seitz give the room some impossibly high ceilings–Detective Story’s audience isn’t looking up at it, Wyler wants the audience to be able to examine the film, to examine its pieces.

The best scenes in the film involve Eleanor Parker. She’s Kirk Douglas’s wife. He’s a puritanical cop, she’s got a secret. Wyler opens the film with Bert Freed and Lee Grant–they provide a frame–she’s a shoplifter who’s got to go to night court. Freed’s got to wait with her. Wyler makes the audience wait for Douglas. Then he makes them wait a little longer for Parker. He’s already established the harsh realities of Detective Story; when Parker arrives, she’s a ray of light.

Detective Story is very disillusioned, very noir, only Wyler doesn’t shoot it noir. He’s not making noir, he’s staging a play. Detective Story’s two biggest problems are Robert Swink’s editing, which can’t keep up with the actors, and Yordan and Wyler’s generic cop talk. It might work on stage, with the audience looking up, but not when they’re examining everything. Wyler invites the audience to examine the reality of Detective Story and he even appears to rush through the bad cop talk to far better sequences as though embarrassed.

There are a lot of characters, there’s a lot going on. Wyler has to get through it; he’s rarely subtle about the pace. There’s one lovely transition sequence from day to night but otherwise, Wyler’s just trying to get from one great scene for an actor to the next. It’s a play, after all.

Parker gets the best stuff. She gets spun around and has to right herself. She has to dominate her scenes, which is incredibly difficult considering the whole movie is about Kirk Douglas’s whirlwind. Sometimes he’s still, but he’s still a whirlwind. He has to be the hero the audience hates themselves for ever loving. Only it’s not a last minute revelation, it’s late second act plot development. Wyler and Douglas (and Parker) then have to take it all even further. Detective Story, as innocuous as it sounds, means to stomp out all the hopes and dreams it can.

Great performances all over. Freed, Grant, Michael Strong, Gerald Mohr, Joseph Wiseman–especially Joseph Wiseman, whose maniac career criminal ends up being Douglas’s alter ego–George Macready, Cathy O’Donnell. Wyler makes sure every performance is good, but not every actor can get enough of a part. It’s all Douglas and Parker’s show, after all. Even Bendix, who’s Douglas’s far more humane partner and gets a subplot all his own, eventually has to move further aside.

Detective Story isn’t a perfect film, but it’s a most perfect staging of a play on film. Wyler’s pacing is precise, his direction of the actors is flawless, his narrative distance is fantastic, ably assisted by his cinematographers and art directors and set decorator. Sure, Swink’s editing is occasionally messy but it’s all for the best of the actors. And they’re what’s essential. Parker, Douglas, Bendix, Horace McMahon (forgot about him earlier). They do startling work and Wyler knows it and wants to best showcase it. Detective Story’s an achievement for everyone involved.

Except Swink, of course.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by William Wyler; screenplay by Philip Yordan and Robert Wyler, based on the play by Sidney Kingsley; directors of photography, Lee Garmes and John F. Seitz; edited by Robert Swink; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Kirk Douglas (Det. James McLeod), Eleanor Parker (Mary McLeod), William Bendix (Det. Lou Brody), Cathy O’Donnell (Susan Carmichael), George Macready (Karl Schneider), Horace McMahon (Lt. Monaghan), Gladys George (Miss Hatch), Joseph Wiseman (Charley Gennini), Lee Grant (Shoplifter), Gerald Mohr (Tami Giacoppetti), Frank Faylen (Det. Gallagher), Craig Hill (Arthur Kindred), Michael Strong (Lewis Abbott), Luis Van Rooten (Joe Feinson), Bert Freed (Det. Dakis), Warner Anderson (Endicott Sims), Grandon Rhodes (Det. O’Brien), William ‘Bill’ Phillips (Det. Pat Callahan) and Russell Evans (Patrolman Barnes).


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THIS FILM IS ALSO DISCUSSED IN SUM UP | ELEANOR PARKER, PART 2: TECHNICOLOR.

China (1943, John Farrow)

China has a lot to do. While it’s a propaganda picture meant to rally American support for the Chinese, it’s also propaganda for the future of China. Loretta Young plays a school teacher and her charges, in almost every one of their scenes, extol the virtues of Western democracy.

There’s also the redemptive aspect for Alan Ladd’s apolitical war profiteer.

But dismissing or discrediting China as a propaganda picture is a mistake. It’s an amazing war film; it’s exceptionally rough action film. For every weak propaganda moment, there’s a fantastic subtle one. The performances from Ladd and Young are outstanding. William Bendix plays Ladd’s sidekick and carries China for a bit at the beginning. It takes the script a while to get comfortable with Ladd, since he’s so unlikable.

The film opens with an incredibly long tracking shot. Farrow does a great job directing China, with the opening tracking shot one of the many wow moments. It shows a village’s destruction (from Japanese bombs) while introducing Bendix and giving him a little story arc. It’s masterful.

The effects keep up the rest of the run time.

Farrow never brings attention to China‘s accelerated pace. It takes place over approxmiately forty-eight hours. The time crunch leads to some painfully obvious exposition to introduce characters. It’s a necessary evil, though no one fars too badly. The fast pace and frequent set pieces make the film a thrill ride, but there’s still a lot of content.

China ably transcends its propaganda.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by John Farrow; screenplay by Frank Butler, based on a play by Archibald Forbes; director of photography, Leo Tover; edited by Eda Warren; music by Victor Young; produced by Richard Blumenthal; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Loretta Young (Carolyn Grant), Alan Ladd (David Jones), William Bendix (Johnny Sparrow), Philip Ahn (Lin Cho, First Brother), Iris Wong (Kwan Su), Victor Sen Yung (Lin Wei, Third Brother), Marianne Quon (Tan Ying), Jessie Tai Sing (Student), Richard Loo (Lin Yun), Irene Tso (‘Donald Duck’), Ching Wah Lee (Chang Teh), Soo Yong (Tai Shen), Beal Wong (Capt. Tao-Yuan-Kai), Bruce Wong (Aide to Captain Tao) and Barbara Jean Wong (Nan Ti).


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The Glass Key (1942, Stuart Heisler)

The Glass Key‘s a murder mystery, but its solution–and even its investigation–is incidental to the rest of the picture. From about seven minutes in, director Heisler defines Key as something quite different. Leading man Alan Ladd isn’t a detective, he isn’t even particularly interested in solving the murder.

Seven minutes in is when Ladd has his first scene with Veronica Lake. Lake plays the object of Ladd’s best friend’s affection–Brian Donlevy’s the best friend–and Ladd just stares at her. It’s a discomforting scene, Heisler and editor Archie Marshek do such an outstanding job. The film’s not exactly a love triangle, because it’s too busy being a friendship movie. But not exactly….

Key is very hard to describe. Jonathan Latimer’s screenplay has a lot of great dialogue and outstanding characters; Heisler does a fantastic job filming it. Latimer, Heisler and Ladd create a somewhat bad guy in the lead. Ladd does some rather despicable things in the picture, sometimes to people who deserve it, sometimes to people who probably don’t. And he smiles his way through all of them and still manages to be above reproach.

The film also has an amazing supporting cast, whether it’s heart-broken little Bonita Granville, sadistic closet case William Bendix, calm mobster Joseph Calleia, wormy politico Donald MacBride or just Frances Gifford’s bemused nurse. Every performance is perfect, especially the leads.

Its little moments are more profound than its entirety, but overall it’s just meant to entertain anyway.

Key is great.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Stuart Heisler; screenplay by Jonathan Latimer, based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett; director of photography, Theodor Sparkuhl; edited by Archie Marshek; music by Victor Young; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Alan Ladd (Ed Beaumont), Brian Donlevy (Paul Madvig), Veronica Lake (Janet Henry), Bonita Granville (Opal Madvig), Richard Denning (Taylor Henry), Joseph Calleia (Nick Varna), Moroni Olsen (Ralph Henry), William Bendix (Jeff), Eddie Marr (Rusty), Arthur Loft (Clyde Matthews), Margaret Hayes (Eloise Matthews), Donald MacBride (Farr) and Frances Gifford (Paul’s nurse).


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