Injustice Department: Hide in Plain Sight (1980)

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In June of 1967, Thomas Leonhard’s children disappeared. They vanished along with his ex-wife and her new husband. A year later Leonhard would learn that they were given new identities as part of the FBI’s Witness Protection Program. A cement mason in Buffalo, New York, Leonhard spent the next eight years in State and Federal courts trying to win the right to see his two kids. This remarkable story became the subject of Leslie Waller’s true crime novel Hide in Plain Sight, which James Caan would adapt for his directorial debut in 1980. Caan wanted the film to be a “cinema verite kind of thing”, so he shot the film on location in Buffalo, with most of the film unfurling as a low-key docudrama, sticking to the everyday details of Leonhard’s life. United Artists considered it too arty and a money loser, so it did not receive the full support of the studio, despite largely positive critical notices. It has been available on DVD from Warner Archive for a few years, but what led me to Hide in Plain Sight was the Buffalo News’ list of the top ten films shot in Western New York. Buffalo is my hometown, and it hasn’t had much luck on the silver screen, aside from Vincent Gallo’s idiosyncratic Buffalo ’66 and some turn-of-the-century Edison shorts (I am partial to A Trip Around the Pan-American Exposition  (1901)). Locals have always been most proud of The Natural (and its use of Parkside Candy Shop), but for me, Hide in Plain Sight presents a more complete view of the city, from the bars to the factories to the zoo. 

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Hypno-Murder: Secrets of the French Police (1932)

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Secrets of the French Police is an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink oddity that flings together police procedurals, adventure serials, and a horror villain with hypno-murder powers. Never settling into one genre for more than a few scenes, it’s totally incoherent and bizarrely entertaining, as it absorbs influences from the famous French Inspector Bertillon to Dracula and The Mystery of the Wax Museum. This RKO programmer from 1932 is now on DVD as part of the Warner Archive’s Forbidden Hollywood Volume 10, and is recommended for those with attention deficit disorder.

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Lost and Found: The Man and the Moment (1929)

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The light comedy The Man and the Moment (1929) was considered lost until a dupe negative was recently discovered at Cineteca Italiana di Milano. This part-talkie from First National Pictures was restored in 2K by Warner Bros. at L’Immagine Ritrovata laboratory in Bologna, and was released on Warner Archive DVD last month. A charming proto-screwball comedy, it’s about a marriage of convenience between a rich playboy and an impetuous adventuress that ends up destroying planes, boats and nightclub aquariums. Made during the transition to sound, it exemplifies the stereotype of that era’s stiff, static line readings. It has snap and vigor in the silent sequences, and grinds to a halt for dialogue. This is not aided by leading man Rod la Rocque, who is a debonair charmer in the silent sequences and a wooden statue during dialogue. His co-star Billie Love is more of a natural, and she waltzes away with the film.

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Knocked Up: Susan Slade (1961)

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In 1958 Delmer Daves suffered a heart attack, forcing him out of the Wild West and into the boudoir. Instructed by his doctors to avoid physically taxing Western location shoots, he embarked on a series of lurid melodramas starring poseable Ken doll Troy Donahue. Donahue’s unthreatening blonde-haired blue-eyed good looks made him the heartthrob of choice from 1959 – 1962, when he made A Summer Place, Parrish, Susan Slade and Rome Adventure with Daves, all of which were box office hits and critical failures (the latter three are available on DVD in WB’s Romance Classics box set, while A Summer Place is out on its own). They are films about sex that treat it as an inevitable result of adolescence, not as a threat to be avoided, and teenagers of the time must have appreciated this honesty, along with the vibrant Technicolor photography capturing the dewy Donahue/Sandra Dee/Connie Stevens. And if you were going to have an illegitimate baby, the gentle Donahue would be the father of choice. I added a poster of Susan Slade to my Facebook page, and immediately one of my friend’s mothers commented, “I was in love with Troy Donahue.” These are movies that are weighted with sense memories for people of a certain age, and they are ripe for reevaluation.

Critics have prioritized Daves’ war films (Pride of the Marines) and Westerns (3:10 to Yuma, Jubal), but these disreputable melodramas are equally representative of his talents, trading Western vistas for suburban split-levels. Dave Kehr wrote in the New York Times that, “the virtues of Daves’s late romances are essentially the same as those of his adventure films: characters composed with the utmost integrity and respect; a gift for creating a detailed and convincing social background; and a strong, clear narrative style that allowed him to manage a large cast of characters and several simultaneous levels of dramatic events.” I have previously written about A Summer Place, but today I am going to discuss Susan Slade, a remarkably strange romance in which Connie Stevens, with the aid of her permissive parents, hides her unwanted pregnancy from the world, and then falls in love with the intellectual-novelist-stable boy Donahue, from whom she hides the truth. The film throws up any number of improbable barriers to their union, from a Guatemalan coal mine to an ill-fated cigarette lighter. Their union is impossible, until it isn’t.

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Trouble in Paradise: Affair in Trinidad (1952)

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Affair in Trinidad (1952) marked Rita Hayworth’s return to the screen after a three-year absence. She had been suspended by Columbia Pictures following her marriage to Iraqi prince Aly Khan and relocation to Europe, which violated her seven-year contract.  Her reunion with Columbia was an uneasy one, and Affair in Trinidad was made with a half-finished script and a truculent star. The resulting film was widely regarded as a sloppy rehash of Gilda, but it was a hit at the box office anyway, as audiences were still devoted to their “Love Goddess” Hayworth. Director Vincent Sherman performed an admirable reclamation job on the nonsensical script, but the artistic successes lie elsewhere on the billing block. The film has two superb dance sequences choreographed by Valerie Bettis, who worked closely with Hayworth, and DP Joseph Walker (in his final film) conjures illicit atmospheres through his inky B&W cinematography. The film recently aired on TCM, and is available on DVD from the Sony Pictures Choice Collection.

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Julien Duvivier in the Thirties

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“If I was an architect and I had to build a palace to the cinema, I would put at its entrance a statue of Duvivier.” – Jean Renoir

Julien Duvivier is a memorable name, phonetically speaking. It rolls lyrically off the tongue, sounding like a foppish count in a Lubitsch operetta. The memory of his career, though, has faded. Duvivier was a distinguished director for forty years, one who popularized the French poetic realist style in Pepe le Moko (1937), starring Jean Gabin. In his time he was admired by Jean Renoir, Orson Welles and Graham Greene, but was part of the old guard roundly rejected by the Cahiers du Cinema critics in the 1950s, and continued to be dismissed by the American brand of auteurism imported to the U.S. by Andrew Sarris. Outside of Pepe, he was rarely discussed in English until a 2009 retrospective mounted at the Museum of Modern Art, organized by Joshua Siegel. And now the Criterion Collection has released a fascinating DVD box set, in their no-frills Eclipse series, entitled Julien Duvivier in the Thirties, which includes David Golder (1930), Poil de Carotte (1932), La Tete d’un Homme (1933), and Un Carnet de Bal (1937). These films, unknown to me previously, approach four different genres with a dark romanticism expressed through a restless, roaming camera.

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I Am Also A Fugitive From A Chain Gang: Hell’s Highway (1932)

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In 1932 the treatment of prisoners on chain gangs became an issue of national import. In January Robert Elliott Burns published I Am a Fugitive From a Georgia Chain Gang!, which recounts two escapes, eight years apart, from brutal prison camps. Warner Brothers would rush to adapt it into I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang for a November release. In June Arthur Maillefert died inside a “sweat box” at the Sunbeam Prison Camp in Florida, a chain wrapped around his neck and wooden stocks nailed around his feet. The camp’s captain was charged with first degree murder and found guilty of manslaughter, sentenced to twenty years imprisonment. Calls for reform reverberated across the country, and the film studios were eager to capitalize on the nation’s interest. Universal was developing Laughter in Hell (which I wrote about here), adapted from a Jim Tully novel, while RKO was fast-tracking Hell’s Highway, which combines Burns and Maillefert’s stories into a narrative they hoped not to get sued over. Prizing speed above all else, RKO got Hell’s Highway into theaters first on September 23rd, beating Fugitive to screens by almost two months (Laughter in Hell didn’t arrive until January of 1933). Brought to the screen by the famously combative director Rowland Brown, Hell’s Highway is cynical and punchy, but compromised by studio meddling.  The Warner Archive has made Hell’s Highway available on DVD as part of “Forbidden Hollywood Volume 9″, the latest in their series of pre-code DVD sets (it also includes Big City Blues, The Cabin in the Cotton, When Ladies Meet, and I Sell Anything).

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Bayou Breakout: Cry of the Hunted (1953)

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After a career of making B-pictures for Columbia and Poverty Row, Joseph H. Lewis signed a contract with MGM in 1950. His calling card was Gun Crazy (1950), a daring crime film whose location photography and long-take heist sequence created a buzz in Hollywood, if not at the box office. MGM executive Dore Schary screened the film at his home, and brought Lewis into the fold. They sold him on the idea of making a documentary portrait of Cuban immigrants, “no actors, done with all portable equipment”, but this bold experiment never materialized. The idea was recycled into the Hedy Lamarr vehicle  A Lady Without Passport (1950), which was Lewis’ directorial debut for MGM. Their artsy hire became just another contract director. But Lewis was used to working miracles off of threadbare scripts – he earned the nickname “Wagon Wheel Joe” on B Westerns by continually bisecting his compositions with wheel spokes. One of the most delirious examples from this period is Cry of the Hunted (1953), about the manhunt of an escaped prisoner through the Louisiana bayou, that Warner Archive has just issued on DVD. Lewis takes every opportunity to ratchet up the intensity: he pushes into extreme close-ups to emphasize flop sweat, lenses a fog-choked hallucination brought on by swallowing swamp water, and captures intense on-location footraces up the Angels Flight funicular in Los Angeles and long take brawls through the Louisiana Bayou. The characters don’t have time to take breaths, and in its svelte 80 minutes, neither does the viewer.

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Pulling the Strings: What Every Woman Knows (1934)

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When Helen Hayes was cast in the 1926 Broadway production of What Every Woman Knows, she was not yet “The First Lady of the American Theater”. According to the show’s producer William A. Brady, she had previously been “deep in the high heels and lipstick business – flapper roles”. It was with the part of the pragmatic “Maggie” in J.A. Barrie’s 1908 play, a Scottish battle of the sexes, that she established the Hayes persona, her civilized veneer holding back a mischievous spirit. The show ran for 268 performances and rave reviews. After further Broadway successes in Coquette (’27) and The Good Fairy (’31), she signed with MGM in 1931 to extend her career into the movies. It seemed natural to have her return to her breakthrough role, and What Every Woman Knows was directed by Gregory La Cava in 1934 – available now on DVD from the Warner Archive. But it was a frustrating experience for all involved, hampered by poor test screenings and re-shoots. Hayes was so disappointed in the process she stopped acting in films for nearly two decades. Regardless of the off-screen dramas, the film itself is a charming comedy about a smart young spinster who manipulates the men in her life into prominence, becoming a behind-the-scenes power broker. It is a rare treat to see Hayes reprise her star-making role, and it is a layered performance built on hundreds of stage repetitions, in which every glance is like a conductor’s wand, controlling the men around her.

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Passing Fashion: Kay Francis at Warner Brothers

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In 1935 Kay Francis was one of the highest paid women in Hollywood, a glamorous star who set fashion trends based on the gowns Orry-Kelly designed for her. In 1939 Warner Brothers terminated her contract. This rapid fall from corporate favor is documented in three films the Warner Archive recently released on DVD:  I Found Stella Parish (’35), The White Angel (’36), and Confession (’37). All feature Francis as the suffering center, absorbing the sins of the world in sacrifice for the virtues of motherhood and mercy, expressed in extreme close-ups where Francis radiates a divine glow. Stella Parish and Confession are urban melodramas that offer Francis the opportunity for multiple hair and costume changes, one of the main pleasures of any Francis film, whereas The White Angel, a Florence Nightingale biopic, keeps her in heavy woolen nursing gear. It was the latter that disappointed Warners. It was perceived as a flop (though it actually turned a profit), and started the downshift in her career. None of these movies are masterpieces (see Trouble in Paradise for that), but the compensatory pleasures of any Francis film – gorgeous gowns, a dizzying array of haircuts, and a heart-tugging melodrama of female self-sacrifice.

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