Review: You Can’t Get Away with Murder

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You Can’t Get Away with Murder is a pre-film noir from 1939 directed by Lewis Seiler.  This film is based on a play by Lewis E. Lawes that originally opened in 1937.  Lewis is an interesting story, he was the Warden of Sing Sing from 1920 through 1941. He took the stories of his inmates and used them for a radio show, books and plays, some of those stories turned into a number of films in the 1930’s, this being one. Lawes used some of his proceeds from his entertainment ventures to improve the prison.

This film stars an up and coming star that would be become a pretty big deal in the years to come, Humphrey Bogart. Bogart does what he does best here, he is a gangster who is tough as they come and pretty smart too.

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This story starts with Frank Wilson,played by Bogart, taking Johnnie Stone under his wing. Johnnie is a young impressionable kid from the neighborhood who looks up to Wilson. Johnnie is played by Billy Halop from the Dead End Kids. Johnnie’s sister is Madge, played by Gale Page, who wants to get Johnnie on the straight and narrow. Madge is dating a cop, played by Harvey Stephens, who is also trying to help with Johnnie.

Johnnie and Wilson hold up a gas station and get away with it. When they get back to town they meet up again. When Johnnie steals the cop’s gun one night when the cop is out with his sister, he ends up giving it to Wilson. Wilson robs a pawn shop, when a struggle ensues Wilson shoots the owner with the cop’s gun. He leaves the gun to frame the cop, but Johnnie knows the truth. Wilson turns himself and Johnnie in for the gas station robbery to take the hit off of the murder. While the duo is in Sing Sing, the cop is convicted of the murder and sentenced to death.

Can Wilson keep Johnnie quiet about the murder? Will Johnnie be able to tell the truth and save his sister’s boyfriend?

Look for Henry Travers as Pops, the prison librarian and Johnnie’s friend while in Sing Sing. Travers would join Bogart again the next year in High Sierra, playing Pa. I would guess Travers may have been type cast.

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This film is very noir in story if not style, with Johnnie being stuck in the middle, basically innocent and in way over his head. With out giving away any spoilers, let’s just say Johnnie may be doomed from the beginning like all good film noir protagonists. Bogart of course adds to the noir feel of the film as well. This will not make any top ten Bogart film lists, but if you are a fan you will enjoy this film. This is a good B movie film noir, even if it was made a year too early. A short film worth your time.

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Film vs. Film: High Sierra vs I Died a Thousand Times

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Classic film noir fans didn’t see to many remakes of a film, with both being made during the classic film noir era. Here is a rare example of just that, High Sierra from 1941 was remade 14 years later as I Died a Thousand Times. So what film is the better movie? I sat down on a Sunday afternoon and watched both of these films back to back to try and answer that question.

Both of these films are based on noir author W.R. Burnett’s book, High Sierra from 1941.

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Round 1: Screen play 

The screenplay is also by W.R. Burnett, though he had John Huston’s help with High Sierra. The dialog is about 85% identical and the story is about 95% identical. It isn’t quite a frame for frame re-make, but it is close.  I would call this a wash, but since the remake basically does not add anything to the original, I’m giving this round to High Sierra. Score: High Sierra 1-I Died a Thousand Times 0

Round 2: Direction and Cinematography 

High Sierra is directed by Raoul Walsh coming off of directing They Drive by Night. I Died a Thousand Times is directed by Stuart Heisler towards the end of his film career as he moved on to television. High Sierra is filmed in black and white while I Died was filmed in Warner Color and CinemaScope. I know, “this is film noir so black and white has to win this battle.” I would say yes to this question most of the time. Black and white cityscapes are the back bone of film noir after all, but this film is more of a country noir, taking place in the beautiful Sierra Mountains for most of the film. Those mountains sure do look better in bright color and on a widescreen. High Sierra is early in the film noir cycle and doesn’t have much of that classic shadowy cinematography like later films either. So I’m giving this round to I Died. High Sierra 1-I Died a Thousand Times 1

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Round 3: The Male Lead

I Died stars the hulking brute Jack Palance as Roy. He is quite a presence on the screen. He looks big and tough and talks big and tough. He is more of a smart thug.  Humphrey Bogart’s star is on the rise here, The Maltese Falcon would arrive later in 1941 and launch him into super stardom. Bogart’s portrayal is more of a smart gangster with a bit of a psycho streak. Both actors have an unique voice and add something to the lines they speak. Well, lets face it, this is film noir and nobody does it better then Bogart. High Sierra 2-I Died a Thousand Times 1

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Round 4: Female Lead

Ida Lupino actually got top billing over Bogart in High Sierra. She was the bigger star at this point in time. Lupino is a film noir legend as an actress and director. I love everything I’ve seen involving Lupino so far. Shelley Winters stars in I Died and adds quite a bit more depth to this character for me. Lupino’s Marie has it together, while Winters’ Marie is trying to survive in a dark world without many options. Winters’ Marie made me believe Roy was her last hope, where I felt Lupino would land on her feet if she lost Roy. Though I loved them both, I’m giving this round to Winters. High Sierra 2- I Died a Thousand Times 2

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Round 5: Supporting Cast

Arthur Kennedy and Alan Curtis are very good as Red and Babe, but Earl Holliman and Lee Marvin seem to be more dark for me. I also liked Lon Chaney Jr. as Big Mac in I Died, but liked Henry Hull as ‘Doc’ Banton in High Sierra. The dogs are both entertaining as Pard. I’m going with I Died for this round. High Sierra 2- I Died a Thousand Times 3

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Well it looks like the remake wins this round by round battle, but lets face it, there was actually a knock out in Round 3 and the fight was called. It’s Bogart after all! Both of these films are great, but High Sierra is a classic for a reason. Though if you have not seen I Died a Thousand Times, you should, it is a bit of a hidden gem from the classic film noir era. I enjoyed both films and if High Sierra was never made, we would be talking about the great classic I Died a Thousand Times. Lets face it, High Sierra is a film that never needed a remake, but if you have to make one, I Died a Thousand Times is as good a remake as you are going to find. Maybe on a Sunday afternoon you will have to watch this double feature and let me know your thoughts.

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Re-Watching the Classics: Conflict

Conflict is a classic film noir from director Curtis Bernhardt. The original story is from novelist Alfred Neumann and the great noir director Robert Siodmak. This film maybe cashing in on the success of The Maltese Falcon with the teaming up of Humphrey Bogart and Sydney Greenstreet once again. Then again who cares! I would love to see this duo in 100 movies!

This film revolves around Richard Mason played by Bogart. He is a wealth business man who is married to Kathryn played by Rose Hobart. Greenstreet plays a family friend who is a psychiatrist. Alexis Smith plays Kathryn’s little sister and has caught the eye of Richard. After a party where we get to know the main players Richard, Kathryn and her little sister are involved in a car crash. Richard is hospitalized and now has to use a cane to get around. Richard and Kathryn’s marriage is on the rocks after Kathryn brings up the fact she can tell Richard is in love with her little sister. She decides to go up to the lodge in the woods by herself and Richard stays behind. With Richard using his injury and alibi of staying in the city, he causes Kathryn to drive off the pass in her car falling to her death. With Kathryn out of the picture will Richard win the heart of her little sister? Will anybody ever find Kathryn? Will Richard’s evil plan all come together for him or will it unravel as his web of lies start to fall apart?

This maybe one of the lesser known noir films starring Bogart, but it shouldn’t be. This is an amazing film with Bogart at his dapper best. He is pure evil in this one, but you still root for him. Greenstreet plays the smartest man in the room like no other. The cinematography in this one is well above average for a classic noir with some amazing shots and scenes that look totally original. If you are noir fan or fan of Bogart and/or Greenstreet (and who is not!) you will enjoy this film.

Favorite Tidbit: Way before Easter Eggs was even a thing, this film has two of them, both from earlier in Bogart’s career. In one scene you will see a version of The Maltese Falcon on a filling cabinet and one of the brooches worn by Kathryn is the exact same one worn by Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca.

Re-watching the Classics: The Maltese Falcon

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The Maltese Falcon has a lot of firsts, firsts that would change film, film-noir, fiction and popular culture forever.  The Maltese Falcon is considered by some as the first true film-noir movie.  It is the first movie John Huston ever directed who went on to direct 46 more movies, many of them considered classics and he is considered one of the best directors in history.  This is Sydney Greenstreet’s first film, at 62 years old, he was a stage actor for 40 years before this film.  Greenstreet went on to make 24 more movies in his career, 9 more with co-star Peter Lorre.  This book on which it is based is written by Dashiell Hammett, who some consider the first writer of noir fiction, if he isn’t he certainly is one of the earliest influential writers and a master of the genre.  His work has not only influenced the noir genre greatly, but has popped up in western and samurai movies and films from all over the globe.  I read the book many years ago, and may re-read it and give it, its own review later.  I can tell you that the book is amazing as well.

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This movie has one glaring non-first, this is the third time this book has been adapted to the screen, the other two where rather lack luster attempts(I have not seen either of them).  The reason this one worked so well is John Huston wrote the script just as the book was written.  The previous attempts all had a happy ending, Huston left the original book ending in his version.

The Falcon itself may be the most famous MacGuffin in film history, it is definitely the most valuable.  There are 4 know Falcons and 2 are made of lead.  These lead versions have gone to auction and sold for well over a million dollars.  That is 3x what the original film cost to make.

We have a bunch of the common themes we will find in noir movies for the next 20 years to even today’s neo noir films.  We have the hardboiled private detective with the overcoat and fedora hat, has anybody done this better than Humphrey Bogart?  We have the femme fatale in Mary Astor.  We have an unhappy ending that maybe not what the audience wanted. We have twists and turns, sometimes us as a viewer are not sure what is going on, does our hero know what is going on?  Most of the film is from our hero’s prospective, we are learning as our hero learns. We also have some underling moral issues that are there but not spoken, do to the movie code of the time.  Is our hero having an affair with his partners wife?  Is one of our thugs actually a gay man?  Is our femme fatale using sex and lies to get what she wants?

Our story starts at Spade and Archer’s office.  Spade and Archer are partners and private detectives.  They take on a case where a man needs to be followed because he has taken our clients younger sister and will not let them see her.  When Archer is on the job, he is shot and killed.  This is where are hero Sam Spade takes over trying to find out who killed his partner and why.  Our adventure is with Spade, he is in every scene of this film, except the scene where his partner is murdered.  We don’t know who to believe and who to trust, just like Sam Spade.  If you haven’t seen The Maltese Falcon yet, do it right now!

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In film noir and noir fiction for that matter we have two writers, that are considered the best of the era.  Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.  The debt about who is best will live forever.  I’ve read both of them and can’t pick a winner myself.  I think the winner is us, as readers of this classic fiction.  One thing they have in common is Humphrey Bogart, the iconic star that played both Hammett’s Sam Spade and Chandler’s Marlowe.  Who is your favorite Bogie detective, Spade or Marlowe?

Review: The Harder They Fall

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The Harder They Fall is a great noir with the most common of noir sports-boxing!(horse racing has to be a close second).  This is Humphrey Bogart’s last film, he was very sick when he made this movie.  To see how great an actor he was, find anywhere in the film where he looks like a sick man.  If you love Bogart, you will love him in this.  This movie also has Rod Steiger and Jan Sterling.

This movie is based on a book of fiction written by Budd Schulberg that is actually based on the career of pro boxing champ Primo Carnera.  This movie and book are so close to true events that Primo sued to get it shelved.  Primo was a giant of a man at 6’9″ and 265 lbs, good-looking and Italian, he was a huge draw at the arenas.  Primo went a remarkable 76-6 on his way to winning the Heavy Weight Title in Madison Square Garden.  He lost the title 3 fights later to Max Baer also at the Garden.  Though nobody really knows the whole truth, but the theory is Primo’s fights were fixed by the mob without his knowledge or consent for most of his career.  When he got in the ring with Baer, he was severely out matched, but his heart and pride would not let him be knocked out.  He was dropped 11 times in 10 rounds and took a hell of a beating.  Primo fought 17 more times with a mediocre record.  Primo also went on to become a pro wrestling champion and had a great career doing so.

The character based on Primo was played by Mike Lane who physically matched Primo.  Lane also had a career in pro wrestling as well as a few more movies.  Lane’s character is Toro Moreno and was from Argentina instead of Italy.  The Max Bear character was actually played by Max himself and went by Buddy Brannen.  We also see boxing great Jersey Joe Walcott in the role of a trainer.

Bogart’s character was also based on a real person by the name of Harold Conrad, who was a colorful writer and promoter.

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This movie tells an amazing story and when I found out it is based in reality, it’s even more fascinating.  Though I know Requiem for a Heavyweight is not a noir film, I watched it soon after seeing The Harder They Fall and seen some similarities.  Though I could not find any information to show this, I have to feel that the writers of Requiem got some inspiration from Primo’s career as well.  Requiem is also a great movie worth watching.

It is a shame this movie doesn’t get its due respect, I know Bogart is one of, if not the best actor in film history, and had a lot of great movies, you really don’t hear much about this film.  This movie has a great rating of 7.6 on IMDb but only has 4300 votes.  It also has 100% Rotten Tomato rating, but only 10 reviews counted.  I don’t know how high on the list of Bogart film I would put this, but it is a great movie worthy of your viewing.