by Ben Terrall
Billed as “subversive cinema … for subversive times,” the Roxie’s four-day series “The Dark Side of the Dream” (March 23-26) is a powerhouse collection of hard-hitting American movies made between 1933 and 1964. Former Roxie programmer Elliot Lavine, who returns to San Francisco from his new home in Portland for this run, put together the program with assistance from Don Malcolm, known most recently for his “The French Had a Name For It” Gallic noir retrospectives at the Roxie.
The twelve films on deck were picked for maximum relevance to today’s political climate. Lavine describes the offerings as “both timely and timeless, both eye-opening and mind-blowing.” It’s hard to argue with that assessment. They’re also beautifully shot movies that look great on the big screen.
One of the standouts is the opening night’s Warner Brothers feature Black Legion (1937). Humphrey Bogart, in one of his least heroic roles, stars as factory worker Frank Taylor, who succumbs to the lure of a nativist hate group.
Taylor wants all the things he feels he is entitled to as a red-blooded American male: a new car, a washing machine for his wife, a decent baseball bat for his son. He’s easy pickings for Cliff Moore (Joe Sawyer), a bigoted co-worker with a line of scapegoating patter that pulls Taylor to the hateful side of the street.
Upon its original release, the New York Times called Black Legion “editorial cinema at its best – ruthless, direct, uncompromising.” The “uncompromising” part of that rave is partly belied by the targets of the titular Legion being Irish and Polish, not African-American or Jewish, but that caveat must be tempered by the fact that the right-leaning Hayes Code was in full effect by the late 1930s; southern white audiences were a big factor in censors muting material about racism or anti-Semitism.
The Black Legion was the actual name of a hate group that was active in Detroit and parts of Ohio in the mid 1930s. The real Legion became infamous for kidnapping and murdering WPA worker Charles Poole in Detroit in 1936; Malcolm X believed that his father was among the other people killed by members of the organization. It’s amazing that Warners didn’t change the group’s name for the movie, which also features robes that are very close to those worn by the Ku Klux Klan (and, as with the KKK, recruits in the film are forced to pay for the specially-made robes, thus netting more money for the leadership).
The xenophobia of the film’s hatemongers is certainly resonant in the age of war on undocumented Latinos: the credo Bogart is forced to swear to includes condemnation of “hordes of grasping, pushing foreigners, who are stealing jobs from American workmen and bread from American workers.” And the terror group sounds downright Trumpist in its proclamation that “It is to combat this peril, to preserve and protect standards of living which made American workmen the envy of the world that we, the challengers, have raised the rallying cry of America for Americans!”
Along with Bogart and Sawyer, the fine cast includes Ann Sheridan and Dick Foran. Black Legion, which concludes with a rousing defense of the Bill of Rights, was banned in Austria, Switzerland, Cyprus, Finland, Trinidad, and France, and heavily censored in England and Australia.
On the other half of the Friday night double bill is Try and Get Me, another study of an embittered working stiff who makes some very bad choices in order to bring home extra bacon for his family. The story is based on a notorious 1933 kidnapping case that took place in San Jose.
Try and Get Me, originally released as The Sound of Fury, is a prime example of a Hollywood movie that outshines its source material (the 1947 novel The Condemned). From the get-go, the narrative grabs the viewer and doesn’t let up until the closing credits. Opening with a nighttime scene at the outskirts of a truck stop where Howard Tyler (Frank Lovejoy) hitches a ride home to his pregnant wife and son in the fictional California town of Santa Sierra after an unsuccessful attempt to find a job, the movie lays out Tyler’s dire straits with no unnecessary frills. Lovejoy’s face is a map of frustration and disappointment. When he goes bowling to blow off steam, his humiliation at not being able to afford the cost of a premium beer is all too convincing.
Lloyd Bridges’s performance as Jerry Slocum is a highlight of the film. Slocum brags about his cologne (“Only the best! Six-fifty a bottle!”) and treats Tyler like a servant. He’s all preening self-aggrandizement, slicking back his hair and flashing his fancy threads. In The Condemned, Slocum’s character is an anti-Semitic nazi sympathizer. The film’s screenplay cut that trait, but Bridges’s character is no less chilling without fascist tendencies.
Adele Jergins as Slocum’s bombshell girlfriend, Richard Carlson as an opportunistic newspaper columnist, and the great Art Smith as Carlson’s editor all acquit themselves handily.
Try and Get Me was directed by Cy Endfield, who got his start working as an assistant on Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). Targeted by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) for leftward leanings, the director departed Hollywood for England shortly after the film’s completion. Enfield noted, “The political enthusiasms attributed to me were already years and years dead, but the sole option of informing still seemed repellant.”
Joseph Losey directed The Lawless (1950) on a minimal budget in about three weeks on location in the Northern California towns of Grass Valley and Marysville. Losey later described Director of Photography Roy Hunt as “marvelous” and said that Hunt “taught me how to work intensely and well and still fast.” For the look of the film, Losey recalled, “I basically used the books of Walker Evans, and, to some extent, Paul Strand: two photographers who were considerable artists.”
The Lawless’s story, which deals with a media-stoked uproar over a young Mexican-American fruit picker who goes on the lam after punching a cop, was adapted by Daniel Mainwaring from his own novel. Macdonald Carey plays veteran reporter Larry Wilder, who has settled in Santa Marta, California (which, ironically, a road sign on entry describes as “The Friendly Town”) in order to live a more peaceful life. But the peace and quiet ends when Wilder sticks up for the rights of Paul Rodriguez (Lalo Rios), even as every other reporter in the state seems dead set on demonizing him.
Mainwaring, who also wrote Out of the Past (1947), insisted that the producers hire Losey to direct his screenplay, and together the two left-wing talents created a movie that is one of the toughest anti-racist films that Hollywood has ever produced.
Robert Osborne and Chan Noriega discuss The Lawless on Turner Classic Movies
The next year, after first overseeing the creepy noir The Prowler, Losey shocked cinephiles everywhere by agreeing to direct a Hollywood remake of the Fritz Lang classic M. Losey took on the assignment reluctantly; he later explained that Lang’s M “is and will remain a classic, which one doesn’t want to compete with.”
One of the reasons Losey decided to go ahead with the project was the participation of the brilliant actor David Wayne as the child killer. Completely different from Lang’s villain Peter Lorre, Wayne was so believable that Losey recalled all the extras on the climactic scene bursting into spontaneous applause when Wayne finished concluding his off-kilter closing monologue, a response Losey said “I’ve never seen or heard before or since.”
Then too, M’s amazing character actors all contributed stellar work: Howard da Silva as the main police investigator, Jim Backus as the mayor, and Raymond Burr, Norman Lloyd, Glenn Anders, Luther Adler, and Martin Gabel as various underworld types. But perhaps the greatest attraction in the movie is Los Angeles itself. The rough, old L.A. of Angel’s Flight and other working class areas later destroyed to make way for more boring upscale redevelopment is here in all its glory. You almost expect to see John Fante or Charles Bukowski stumble out of a barroom scene.
Saturday evening’s bill begins with Samuel Fuller’s The Naked Kiss (1964), which Fuller both wrote and directed. Fuller, a hero to the French New Wave which emerged in the late 1950s, was given a cameo in a party scene in Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot Le Fou where Godard told him to say anything; Fuller, playing himself, proclaimed the following: “A film is like a battleground – love … hate … action … violence … death … in one word – emotion!”
That credo is on full display in The Naked Kiss, which Fuller shot independently of major studios. In his wildly entertaining memoir A Third Face, Fuller describes meeting a prostitute for the first time when he was a seventeen-year crime reporter for the New York Graphic (he began selling newspapers at eleven and got a job as a copy boy at the age of twelve). The teenage Fuller soon realized that he’d been fed a line about prostitutes being lesser beings; he never availed himself of their services but instead got to know them and understand the daunting challenges of their work. Fuller’s humanist, judgement-free take on the oldest profession stands out in The Naked Kiss.
The opening shots of The Naked Kiss fully embody Fuller’s tabloid aesthetic: the camera, which was strapped to either an actor or a camera operator (depending on whose version you accept) is repeatedly struck by a purse wielded by Kelly (Constance Towers). The jolts continue throughout the opening scene, then Kelly leaves the big city to attempt life in a smaller town. Suffice it to say that the town in question does not conjure up associations with Norman Rockwell or Thornton Wilder.
The story winds up being a vivisection of all-American hypocrisy, and, in its unwavering sympathy for the struggles of its heroine, a kick in the nuts to patriarchy.
Fuller described his approach as “using the camera as a typewriter.” He wrote of The Naked Kiss’s cinematographer Stanley Cortez, who also lensed The Magnificent Ambersons and The Night of the Hunter (1955), “He was an outstanding craftsman. Stanley had a reputation for being slow on a set. He had no time to be slow with me.”
The Naked Kiss did well at the box office, and went on to influence numerous filmmakers. If you haven’t seen it, why miss out on this chance to catch it on the big screen? Among other reasons, it’s undoubtedly the only film you will ever see that includes the line, “Our marriage will be a paradise because we’re both abnormal.”
The co-feature with Fuller’s classic is the great Bette Davis vehicle Marked Woman (1937). This feature is also highly sympathetic to working girls, this time young ladies who have to “entertain” men who come into a nightclub owned by evil gangster Johnny Vanning (Eduardo Ciannelli). Vanning brooks no arguments from his employees or anyone else – he explains, “I don’t make deals with nobody. They make deals with me.”
Watch Davis (as Mary Stauber) stand up to Ciannelli! See Humphrey Bogart as the crusading district attorney out to take down the underworld boss, and hear the line “I’ll get you – even if I have to crawl back from the grave to do it”! No matter that Bogart tells a jury that the assembled B-girls are “definitely objectionable in the eyes of decent men and women,” this excellent Warner Brothers picture comes down resoundingly on the side of the young women forced into lives they hate due to Depression-era economic necessity.
The Sunday matinee pairs two fast-paced 1930s features, They Won’t Forget (1937), directed by Mervyn LeRoy, and Heroes for Sale (1933), directed by William Wellman. The plot of They Won’t Forget centers on a killing in a small southern town and the subsequent efforts by opportunistic district attorney Andy Griffin (Claude Rains) to pin the crime on an unpopular Yankee by using circumstantial evidence and dubious testimony. Griffin is aided in his prosecutorial efforts by cynical reporter William Brock (Allyn Joslyn), who is only too happy to help sell papers by whipping his readers into a frenzy of provincial hatreds. LeRoy, who also directed the seminal expose I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932), was praised for his work on They Won’t Forget by The New York Times’s Frank Nugent, who raved, “for [the film’s] perfection, chief credit must go to Mr. LeRoy for his remarkably skillful direction – there are a few touches as anything the screen has done.” (Watch a trailer and clips for They Won’t Forget)
Heroes for Sale is an especially fine cinematic offering. Its protagonist Thomas Holmes (Richard Barthelmess) goes through World War I and comes home addicted to the morphine he takes to kill shrapnel-induced pain. After a variety of ups and downs, he winds up getting some very bad breaks which serve to show the rough times that unemployed people suffered through during the Depression. The result is a tough look at difficult truths of the period, but the movie is never didactic or preachy.
The unstoppable forward momentum Wellman creates in Heroes for Sale is as exciting as the incredible pace Fuller sustains throughout The Naked Kiss. Loretta Young, who plays the hero’s love interest in the film, later recalled, “I felt very secure when I was working with Hellman. There was nothing phony or artificial about him … He liked to shoot fast, in one take, and the energy went right through him and into his actors.” And as Hellman’s son William Wellman Jr. wrote, “Heroes for Sale is no glossy, feel-good picture. Nothing is sugar-coated.”
Sunday evening’s A Face in the Crowd (1957) was written by Budd Schulberg and directed by Elia Kazan. Schulberg and Kazan had both been “friendly witnesses” before HUAC, but with this prescient warning about the dangers of television, the two men showed that they hadn’t entirely eschewed progressive politics by naming names. The right-wing press saw the film as a major slap in its face.
Andy Griffith starts as Larry Rhodes, an edgy Southern hobo who radio journalist Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal) plucks from the drunk tank and nicknames “Lonesome” for a human interest program called “A Face in the Crowd.” Soon Rhodes is using his Lonesome persona to charm on-air audiences into doing his bidding, starting with dumping their canines on the lawn of the local sheriff who had given Rhodes a black eye. Once the emerging cracker barrel philosopher becomes the host of his own TV show, his corn-pone powers of persuasion prove so strong that a corporate sponsor elicits his help in advising a stiff politician on crafting a more folksy delivery. One of the corporate pitch men in on this political re-branding clarifies its significance: “Instead of long-winded public debates the people want capsule slogans: ‘Time for a change!’ ‘The mess in Washington!’ ‘More bang for a buck!’ Punch lines and glamour!”
Schulberg and Kazan spent months with actual advertising executives in researching their story, and even discovered a mock TV studio in the Senate Office Building used for rehearsing politicians. Their work paid off, for the end result is one of the most powerful depictions of the dangerous potential for right-wing manipulation of TV messaging that Hollywood has ever produced.
Regarding fascism in the U.S., Schulberg said in a 2006 interview that “with the right charisma and the right message, it could still happen here.” Too bad for us, and the rest of the world, that eight years later his observation proved all too accurate.
Meet John Doe (1941) is probably Frank Capra’s most political film, and an uncharacteristically dark one for a director whose work has been derided as “Capra corn.” Barbara Stanwyck is dynamite as go-getting reporter Ann Mitchell, who is fired from her job at The Bulletin when the paper is revamped as “A Streamlined Newspaper for a Streamlined Time.” Her editor Henry Connell, played by the great character actor James Gleason, barks out “What we need is fireworks! People who can hit with sledgehammers!” and Stanwyck responds by disgustedly writing her last column about a fictional everyman who threatens to commit suicide in response to societal ills. When the paper’s readership clamors to hear more from the nonexistent “John Doe,” Gleason and Stanwyck audition a stream of down and out men until they fix on Gary Cooper, who becomes the idol of millions. Cooper’s character starts out blasé then winds up meaning well, but wealth publisher D.B. Cooper (Edward Arnold) has other plans.
Capra wrote that he wanted to show “the ugly face of hate; the power of uniformed bigots in red, white, and blue shirts; the agony of disillusionment; and the wild dark passions of mobs.” He succeeded.
The John Garfield double feature that closes the series is a great showcase for one of the most interesting actors from Hollywood’s “Golden Age.” Body and Soul (1947) stars Garfield as Charlie Davis, a poor kid from the Lower East Side of Manhattan who rises to the top of the boxing world through grit and determination. Davis is shepherded along the way by a greedy promoter (William Conrad) and ultimately learns the hard truths of the sport from Roberts (Lloyd Gough), the racketeer who controls middle weight title bouts; explaining the realities of fixed fights, Roberts tells Davis, “Everything is addition or subtraction. The rest is conversation.”
Body and Soul’s screenplay (written by Abraham Polansky, another left-wing target of the blacklist) is one of the most powerful depictions of the corruption endemic to capitalism in any Hollywood movie. It also features one of the most no-nonsense African-American characters in 20th century American films, the former heavyweight champ (played by Canada Lee). When one of an industry executive suggested Lee’s role be played by a white man instead, Garfield responded with the two word insult that begins with the synonym for copulation.
We Were Strangers (1949) tells the story of a cell of urban revolutionaries plotting a violent attack on a right-wing dictatorship in Cuba in the early 1930s. In its matter of fact presentation of the brutal realities of “collateral damage” in wartime it brings to mind The Battle of Algiers (1966), making it unlike any other Hollywood film of the 40s or 50s. The rabidly right-wing Hollywood Reporter called We Were Strangers “the heaviest dish of Red Theory ever served to an audience outside the Soviet Union,” to which director John Huston responded, “who cares what the Reporter has to say?”
Read Ben Terrall’s interview with programmer Elliot Lavine.
Ben Terrall isn’t sure which college degree has been more useful in his subsequent career as writer and editor: the one from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, or the one from the School of Hard Knocks in Boston, Southeast Asia, and the Bay Area. Both have come into play before, during and after his film and literary criticism written for Counterpunch, In These Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, January Magazine, 48 Hills, and Noir City.