Categories
Documentaries and Books

Hollywood Enigma: Dana Andrews

I take a break from recommending movies in favor of recommending the next best thing: A book about the movies! I have always found Dana Andrews intriguing because he was such a towering star in the 1940s, anchoring films of superlative quality that were also wildly popular with audiences, including A Walk in the Sun, Laura and of course The Best Years of Our Lives. But beginning in the 1950s his career dissipated very rapidly and few people today even remember his name. What happened to this talented and toothsome actor, who seemed poised to dominate the screen for decades as did similar performers such as Henry Fonda and Gregory Peck?

That’s one of the central questions addressed by Carl Rollyson’s fine recent biography Hollywood Enigma: Dana Andrews. Nothing else written about Andrews over the years pulls together so many sources of information so skillfully, making this likely the definitive biography of the man for all time. Crucially, Rollyson obtained the support of Andrews’ family and with it access to home movies, letters and anecdotes that get beneath the glossy images that the Hollywood publicity machine creates for its stars.

Rollyson makes clear that Andrews’ path to Hollywood was neither certain nor easy. Dana’s domineering, colorful father was a Baptist preacher in Texas and money was at times tight in the large Andrews clan. Dana and his siblings worked at odd jobs to keep the family afloat, and even as he was later getting a foothold in Southern California theater, he was still driving trucks to make ends meet during The Great Depression. His humble origins may have accounted for why, throughout his life, he remained an unpretentious regular guy more comfortable with the average person on the street than the glitzy Hollywood types who came to surround him when he became a star. It also helped account for him later becoming an avid New Dealer who loathed the political rise of Ronald Reagan (Both Reagan and Andrews would serve as President of the Screen Actors Guild).

Through extracts from love letters Rollyson movingly conveys the central conflict of Andrews’ young adult life. He had moved to California and was excited by what he might achieve there. But he was still strongly attached to his long-time girlfriend back in Texas. A painful choice had to be made and he ultimately broke off the engagement with the girl-next-door and married a woman he had met in his new life. Yet he stayed lifelong friends with his first girlfriend, whom he probably recognized understood him and loved him in a way that the many women who later swooned over the famous star never would.

After success in theater, Andrews began to land movie parts of growing significance. He was the epitome of a certain kind of masculinity that was cherished in that era. Outwardly strong, noble and fearless on screen, he simultaneously conveyed, in a minimalistic and naturalistic way, churning emotion underneath. Clearly, he had a handsome face, but it was what was going on underneath that transfixed most movie-goers. Rollyson dissects Andrews’ most critical roles well, helping the reader understand both Andrews’ talents and how some directors (but not others) knew how to maximize them.

In the mid-to-late 1940s, Andrews was one of the most beloved, most highly-paid movie actors in the world. But how many people remember him today compared to Bogart, Peck and Fonda, or even Fred MacMurray, who attained similar heights in that era? Andrews’ steep decline fascinates Rollyson and he goes a long way towards sorting out why it happened.

Categories
Action/Adventure Mystery/Noir

Where the Sidewalk Ends

In 1944, Andrews and his frequent co-star Gene Tierney, Director/Producer Otto Preminger and Cinematographer Joseph LaShelle made Laura, a classic film of high society longing, love and murder. Take that same foursome, move the story setting down significantly in economic strata and add a dose of brutality and you have 1950’s Where the Sidewalk Ends.

The story, as conveyed through one of Ben Hecht’s many outstanding scripts, centers on Police Detective Mark Dixon (Andrews). Dixon’s hatred of gangsters is legendary, and leads him to relentlessly un-Miranda-type behavior toward thugs. He has a particular grudge against mob boss Tommy Scalise (an oleaginous Gary Merrill), for reasons that are revealed during the film. While investigating a murder in which Scalise is involved, Dixon loses his temper one time too many, resulting in a tragic death which he tries to cover up. He hopes to frame Scalise, but suspicion instead falls on an innocent man (sweetly played by Tom Tully) whose dishy daughter (Tierney) turns Dixon’s head. The dark story twists like a knife from there, up to and including the very last scene.

The film has some superb noir cinematography, with the standout shot being a long, fixed point take of a car with Dixon and some mobsters in it approaching and entering a car elevator (in which LaShelle cannily placed the camera) and then rising up off the screen as the men in the car eye each other suspiciously. There are also a number of arresting shots that draw the viewers’ attention to two distinct points on the screen. My favorite is when Andrews is about to tell Tierney the truth but then turns toward the viewer, his face partly shaded. She then talks over his shoulder at the camera, as his face is transfixed with shame and doubt. Preminger set up many scenes this way in his career, challenging the viewer to track both external action and internal reactions in the same shots.

Who gets the credit for these effective framings and the movie’s overall cool look? I have written about how some directors are more controlling than others of the camerawork. Preminger was a legendary martinet on the set, so one can presume at least some of the photography set ups were his idea. On the other hand, LaShelle was an excellent cinematographer not just in the half dozen films he made with Preminger but also without him: He was nominated for an Oscar nine times! So credit both of them for an effective collaboration, especially LaShelle because Preminger could be such a domineering artist.

Categories
Action/Adventure Drama Romance

Canyon Passage

Canyon Passage 1946 Dana Andrews Drama Western

Between making bettered remembered films, Dana Andrews starred in an underappreciated 1946 frontier yarn made in glorious Technicolor by an extraordinarily unlikely director: Black and white film noir master Jacques Tourneur! The result is an entertaining, highly original (if blandly titled) Western: Canyon Passage.

The plot, set in mid-19th century Oregon, is not easy to summarize, which turns out to be one of the film’s virtues. Throughout there is a movie-length story thread concerning whether brave, restless entrepreneur Logan Stuart (Andrews) will marry a sweet, stay-at-home woman (Patricia Roc) or end up with the sassy, adventurous flame-haired beauty the audience knows is made for him (Susan Hayward) if only she were not engaged to his friend (Brian Donlevy). But there is much more to the film than that. It’s a slice of frontier life, told through different lenses. Indeed, the film’s highlight is an extended sequence of slight relevance to the love triangle storyline in which the pioneers raise a cabin for a newly married couple. The panoramic tale also includes subplots about the cruelty of “justice” in towns where no police or courts exist, the workings and risks of gold mining-based economic systems and how boredom leads small town dwellers to seek out destructive entertainments (e.g., egging on fistfights, engaging in compulsive gambling). Some critics found Canyon Passage too “plotty” but if you step back from the details and see it more as the story of a entire frontier community, it’s unified and not a bit overstuffed.

That style of storytelling is one sign that Tourneur clearly didn’t want to make a typical Western. Another is that the first closeup doesn’t occur until 15 minutes into the movie! Throughout the film, Tourneur keeps the camera at a distance from his stars (thereby driving producer Walter Wanger batty), which makes the audience think about the many characters in the town as a whole rather than just seeing them as background for the leads.

What makes Andrews’ commanding performance so enjoyable is the way he plays off three other talented actors. His flirty, forbidden jousting with Hayward has palpable electricity, his dedication to his flawed friend Donlevy is both inspiring and sad, and his conflict with a vicious local bully (Ward Bond) is gripping. Bond was a physical powerhouse, and his brutal character here is what Jud Fry would have been in Oklahoma! if he had regularly consumed steroids. The physical confrontation between Andrews and Bond, one of the film’s highlights, left both men bruised and in need of stitches (that’s an juicy detail in the engaging Carl Rollyson biography about Andrews that I recommended here). Other fine performances in the film are turned in by Andy Devine, Halliwell Hobbes and a then-unknown Lloyd Bridges. When such a large cast is uniformly good, you should credit the director, so hats off to Tourneur for his skill.

Whether you find this film to be outstanding or just pretty good may well turn on whether you are a fan of Hoagy Carmichael, who had an enormously successful and unique multi-decade career in Hollywood. He is primarily remembered for his music, but also acted in some movies in the 1940s and early 1950s including in the Andrews-anchored classic The Best Years of Our Lives (my favorite Carmichael role in is one of my recommendations, To Have and Have Not). Here he plays (what else?) a musically inclined shopkeeper and performs several original songs which he wrote for the movie, including Ole Buttermilk Sky and Silver Saddle. I think his music is pleasing in any event and also fits the movie particularly well, but see what you think.

Categories
Drama Mystery/Noir

Boomerang!

The duty of the prosecutor is to seek justice, not merely to convict.

1947’s Boomerang!, based on a real-life murder case that was never solved, stands out among Hollywood’s many courtroom dramas due to its excellent acting, unusual plot structure and creative storytelling style.

The crime that provides the basis for the movie occurred in Bridgeport, Connecticut in 1924, but because the town refused to allow Boomerang! to be filmed there, nearby Stamford was used instead. The basic facts of the original case are all present in the film. A priest is publicly executed by a gunshot to the head and the killer escapes before shocked witnesses can react. A manhunt and tremendous pressure on the police and local politicians ensue. Eventually the police arrest a drifter, a war veteran familiar with firearms and in possession of a .32 caliber handgun such as was used in the murder. He initially asserts his innocence but confesses to the crime after an extended pre-Miranda Era grilling by police detectives. The pressure is on for a quick conviction and sentencing, but the state’s attorney (in real life, future Attorney General of the United States Homer Cummings) begins to doubt the guilt of the accused.

The film is an early effort of Elia Kazan, and shows the flowering inventiveness of a young filmmaker on his way to a glittering career. Montage sequences are skillfully employed both to move the story along and also to provide local color. We don’t just see the usual newspaper headlines “Murder Suspect Arrested!” racing across the screen. Instead the montages also cut between little moments: Woman gossiping about the crime on the back stoop, men who vaguely match the description of the killer being arrested by police, ordinary people eyeing each other suspiciously on the street. Combined with shooting on location, these sequences do much to deepen the film’s realistic style.

Richard Murphy’s script, based on Fulton Oursler’s Reader’s Digest article about the real case, adds some elements that are uniquely suspenseful. Through an early scene with the priest followed by some meaningful closeups later, viewers are signaled about the true identity of the murderer. Thus, unlike in films where the audience is on the edge of their seats wondering if someone is guilty, the tension is focused instead on whether mob pressure will result in the conviction of an innocent man. Further, by inventing context about local machine politics, including giving the defendant an attorney who wants him to be convicted, the script shifts attention away from what will happen when the case is tried and centers its conflict on the morality of one character: When absolutely everyone is rooting for a conviction and the consequences of not securing it could be personally disastrous, what should a state’s attorney do when he thinks the police have the wrong man?

Dana Andrews was born to play characters like the state’s attorney, and this is one of his best roles. When he meets the accused (Arthur Kennedy, very good as usual) in jail, he expects a perfunctory post-confession meeting. But when he begins to learn the other side of his story, the doubt and sympathy subtly and irresistibly grow on Andrews’ face. He was so good at calibrating his reactions that you could imagine everyone in the audience thinking they were the one person who noticed that something was roiling beneath the surface polish. Kazan was of the method school and wanted more histrionics from the naturalistic Andrews, which goes to show that even A-list directors are wrong some of the time.

An actor more to Kazan’s liking, Lee J. Cobb, makes a big impression here as a gruff, tough yet ethical police detective. There are a few scenes when Kazan lets the camera linger on him for a few moments after the dialogue has ended, and each time Cobb gives some look or non-verbal gesture that nicely conveys his thoughts and feelings. Jane Wyatt, as Andrews’ wife, has the right touch in the domestic scenes: They are absolutely credible as a loving, long-married couple. Ed Begley is also compelling as a slimy local businessman with a selfish interest in a quick conviction, and Karl Malden makes a good cop, just as he would again with Andrews in Where the Sidewalk Ends (Recommendation here).

The last act of the film, which takes place in a packed courtroom, shows how a superstar can dominate the screen (if you want a similar, more recent example, check out Paul Newman’s courtroom closing argument in The Verdict). Standing center stage and looking devastating in a natty dark suit (WHY WHY WHY did American men ever stop dressing this way?), Andrews has 95% of the dialogue, with the other actors mainly being window dressing. It could have been stagy, but Andrews sells it with invincible credibility, giving the audience an exciting and satisfying wrap-up of every loose end in the story.

Categories
Action/Adventure Comedy Drama

Zero Hour! and Airplane! **Double Feature**

Icebox Movies: Zero Hour! (1957)

This double feature recommendation comes with a strong suggestion for viewing order. You absolutely should watch Zero Hour! first, because once you’ve seen Airplane!, you will have a hard time taking the former film seriously again. And that would be too bad, because it’s a perfectly solid drama/thriller.

Written by Arthur Hailey of Airport fame, 1957’s Zero Hour! stars Dana Andrews as former squadron leader Ted Stryker. I’ve written before about this period in Andrews’ career, during which he labored in B-movies as he struggled with alcoholism (not incidentally, his co-star here, Linda Darnell was in the same boat). Yet he managed to class up these productions with good performances, a strong jaw and leading man looks (albeit a bit drink-ravaged). Perhaps because he himself was a man whose career and life were on a downslope, he is particularly good in Zero Hour! at making the audience sympathetic with Ted Stryker. Following one terrible misjudgment during the war, Ted has been haunted by self-doubt. He has lost the respect of his wife (Linda Darnell) but is consoled by the fact that his son still looks up to him (Raymond Ferrell).

And then, before you can say “contrived plot development”, the Stryker family ends up on an airplane on which many passengers are sickened by bad food. The plane’s captain also falls ill and can no longer fly (The captain is played by Crazylegs Hirsch…a famous athlete playing an airline pilot..I wonder if someone could ever find a way to make fun of that?). A serious, silver haired physician (Geoffrey Toone) who happens to be on board intones somberly that if the passengers are not hospitalized soon, they will die. Meanwhile, the weather is worsening, becoming reminiscent of the horrible conditions during Ted’s failed World War mission. Can Ted shake off his fears, land the plane, and at the same time save his son, who is among the ill? He will have at least some help: on the ground, the hard-headed, no nonsense Capt. Martin Treleaven (Sterling Hayden, as alcohol-soaked at this point in his career as Andrews) has taken command at the airport and is prepared to bring the plane in safely.

Sterling Hayden, Charles Quinlivan, and Patricia Tiernan in Zero Hour! (1957)

OK, it’s a bit of a potboiler, but the acting is fine, the effects are good for the period, and the story is genuinely exciting. And this film is probably the high point of Hall Bartlett’s uneven career as a director; he gets everyone to play things super straight, which you could pull off with a 1950s audience in a way you never could with a modern one.

Which brings me to the 1980 film Airplane! Three very, very funny guys (David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker) saw Zero Hour! late at night and apparently laughed all the way through. They then created a movie that is hilarious in its own right and also deserves admiration for being one of the best parodies of a prior movie ever made. If you have just watched Zero Hour!, Airplane! is even MORE funny, if that’s possible. Indeed, some of the most laugh-inducing lines in Airplane! appear as dead serious lines in Zero Hour! (“Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit smoking…”).

Categories
British Horror/Suspense

Curse of the Demon

Director Jacques Tourneur didn’t make many movies and is largely forgotten today, but he has a cult following of which I am a part. He made horror films such as I Walked with a Zombie, film noirs such as Out of the Past, and films that exist somewhere in between, such as 1957’s suspenseful and scary Curse of the Demon.

The plot of the film pits hard-headed American psychologist Dr. John Holden (Dana Andrews) against sinister British cult leader Dr. Julian Karswell (a deliciously malevolent yet courtly Niall McGinnis), who claims to have magical powers. Holden is investigating the mysterious death of a colleague who, like himself, was trying to debunk Karswell’s claims. Karswell tells him calmly that his colleague was destroyed by the curse of the demon, and that a similar curse has been placed on Holden and will end his life in just a few days. Holden at first laughs this threat off, but then begins to experience a series of unnerving events that cause him (and the audience) to becoming increasingly scared that the curse of the demon is real.

Night of the Demon ****½ | Wonders in the Dark

As detailed in Carl Rollyson’s first-rate biography of Dana Andrews (recommended here), this handsome, broad shouldered actor looked like he had decades of stardom ahead of him in the 1940s, but he developed a serious alcohol problem that drove his career southward before he finally got into stable recovery around 1970. In some of his scenes here, he looks a little shaky and pale and one wonders if that is acting or not, but in either case, it works perfectly as Dr. Holden begins to unravel psychologically. Peggy Cummins, who commanded the screen in another of my recommendations (Hell Drivers), is surprisingly bland here as Holden’s fellow investigator and love interest. Instead, the sparks come in the scenes between Andrews and McGinnis. Their debates about science versus superstition are among the highlights of this film (The photo above is from my favorite such scene, which Tourneur brilliantly set at a children’s party in which Karswell is wearing a clownish magician’s costume).

As you would expect for Tourneur, there are lots of noirish visual touches, including abundant shadows and deep focus shots of people walking alone down empty corridors and streets. It all works perfectly to maximize emotional tension in this classic chiller.

This film is sometimes entitled “Night of the Demon” and sometimes “Curse of the Demon” depending on whether you’ve got hold of a US or UK print. In any event, the thing to ensure is that you have the full 95 minute version and not one of the chopped up shorter prints that are around.

N.B. Spoiler Alert, stop reading here you haven’t seen the film. Tourneur was unhappy with how unambiguously the final version of the film makes clear that the demon was real. He wanted to show the demon either not at all or so quickly that the movie would not take a clear position on whether there was such a creature or whether it only existed in the minds of its victims (A conclusion echoed in Andrews’ final line in the film about how it’s better not to know whether there was such a creature). But Tourneur was overruled by the producers, who took control of the two demon scenes on the film. In the final scene, Tourneur had clearly set up the smoky, clacking train to be the cue that convinced Karswell that the demon was after him, and the (not bad for the time) demon effects are now superimposed on that. Note also in the first appearance of the demon, the demon is not necessary to the death that occurs, so again Tourneur had set up everything to keep the demon’s existence ambiguous. Whether it would have worked better Tourneur’s way is a matter for debate. I suspect it would have been a very good, hair-raising film either way.