The Ex-Mrs. Bradford

William Powell, Jean Arthur The Ex-Mrs. Bradford

The Ex-Mrs. Bradford, 1936, RKO Radio Pictures. Starring Jean Arthur, William Powell. Directed by Stephen Roberts. B&W, 81 minutes.

Paula Bradford (Jean Arthur) and Dr. Lawrence “Brad” Bradford (William Powell) are divorced, yet enjoy a cordial relationship — perhaps enjoyed a bit more by Paula than Brad. The ex-Mrs. Bradford believes the two should re-marry, and to that end, she’s moved back into his roomy apartment.

But that isn’t the only conflict in their relationship. Paula is convinced the recent death of a jockey, who mysteriously fell off his horse during a race, is murder. Brad sees no reason to think this, until someone close to the situation confirms it is, indeed, suspicious.

The two are drawn into the case, with their relationship evolving just as the clues do. But Paula’s meddling truly gets Brad involved when her “work” on the case leads authorities to make him their number one suspect.

William Powell, Jean Arthur star in The Ex-Mrs. Bradford
William Powell, Jean Arthur

Clearly playing on the popularity of The Thin Man (none of the sequels had been made at this point), this film holds its own and was one of the most popular comedies of the year. It was the last film for director Stephen Roberts, who died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 40 two months after the movie’s release. Roberts had directed more than 100 films in his 14 year career, including Star of Midnight just one year before, with Powell and Ginger Rogers.

Powell and Arthur had both worked for Paramount studios several years earlier, where each got his or her film career start in silent movies. While the transition to “talkies” was easier for Powell, in part because of his smooth voice, both were a hit in Arthur’s first major talking film, The Canary Murder Case (1929). That was also one of Powell’s first detective roles, a type of character he went on to play in numerous films, including The Ex-Mrs. Bradford.

William Powell in The Ex-Mrs. Bradford
William Powell

The film also features Eric Blore, the character actor who appeared in more than 80 films throughout his career, including such Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers films as Swing Time and Top Hat.

This is a charming, albeit lesser-known mystery-comedy with an outstanding cast, a plot that, while not of the calibre of Dashiell Hammett, is nonetheless clever, and a number of the elements of popular comedies of the day, including a divorced couple whose reunion we eagerly anticipate right from the start, a scatterbrained yet ultimately clever female lead and a convoluted, improbable path to resolution and reconciliation. Fans of screwball comedies of this era will thoroughly enjoy this film.

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After the Thin Man

myrna-loy-william-powell-in-after-the-thin-man

After the Thin Man, 1936, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Starring William Powell, Myrna Loy, James Stewart. Directed by W.S. Van Dyke. B&W, 112 minutes

Nick (William Powell) and Nora (Myrna Loy) Charles have returned to their San Francisco home, just in time for a New Year’s celebration thrown in part in their honor. They are summoned to the home of Nora’s Aunt Katherine (Jessie Ralph) for dinner, where Nora learns a favorite cousin, Selma (Elissa Landi) is worried sick over the disappearance of her husband, Robert.

Also in attendance is long-time family friend and admirer of Selma’s, David Graham (James Stewart). David convinces Selma to join him and the Charles’ for a night out on the town, including a trip to local nightclubs to search for Robert. They find the errant husband easily enough, but as the clock strikes midnight, he is shot to death, and Selma, who is seen shortly thereafter standing over his body, holding a gun, becomes the prime suspect.

Skippy as Asta, William Powell and Myrna Loy in After the Thin Man
Skippy as Asta, William Powell, Myrna Loy

The search for Robert becomes a search for the truth about his killer. Joining the Charles’ in their venture is their loyal dog, Asta, who, it appears, has some new — and adorable — additions to his canine family.

This was the second of six Thin Man movies, and is nearly as good, and certainly as enjoyable, as the first, The Thin Man. Like the original, it is based on a story by Dashiell Hammett (although not a published novel or short story), with the screenplay written by Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, who received an Academy Award nomination for Best Writing, Screenplay.

The Nick & Nora Charles of the films were a bit audacious with their heavy drinking and for-the-era racy adoration of each other (there’s no doubt this couple has a healthy private life), but the pair portrayed in Hammett’s novel were “a couple living in a liquor-soaked open marriage” according to a PBS biography. Even pre-Code Hollywood considerably toned down that element in the original The Thin Man, and the Code, with its tighter moral standards, was in effect for After the Thin Man.

william-powell-starring-in-after-the-thin-man
William Powell

Still, the characters in the films aren’t stereotypical Hollywood. Delivering such lines as, “let’s get something to eat. I’m thirsty,” Powell gives a dry, sardonic and sophisticated performance as the former detective called upon by the family who looks down on him to investigate the murder, and arrest, of their own. A fiercely determined Loy once again gets herself in trouble with her sincere efforts to help her husband, but he is always a step ahead of her. She’s no slouch or encumbrance, however, and delivers crucial evidence, despite her lack of investigative savvy.

James Stewart, still early in his career and limited to co-starring roles, is sympathetic as the man facing unrequited love, never willing to give up on the woman he believes would be happiest with him.

Myrna Loy, William Powell star in After the Thin Man.png
Myrna Loy, William Powell

This is a clever story with any number of viable suspects who, one by one, are eliminated through Nick’s dogged detective work. It moves quickly and leaves few, if any, loose ends.

Perhaps the best of the “Thin Man” sequels, After the Thin Man is quintessential whodunit fare combined with wit and colorful characters, part of what makes this series an enduring element of pop culture.

Mrs Asta and family in After The Thin Man
Mrs. Asta and family


 

 

 

 

 

 

Foreign Correspondent

laraine-day-joel-mccrea-in-foreign-correspondent

Foreign Correspondent, 1940, United Artists. Starring Joel McCrea, Laraine Day. Co-starring George Sanders, Herbert Marshall, Albert Basserman. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. B&W, 120 minutes.

Deft dialogue, sharp cinematography and special effects that continue to impress today make this spy thriller, one of the lesser-known Hitchcock films, pure entertainment and a cinematic fun house.

In August 1939, reporter Johnny Jones (Joel McCrea) sits at his desk making snowflake cut-outs while he waits to be fired. The summons from his boss arrives, but the message isn’t what he expected. Instead of losing his job, he is promoted to foreign correspondent in London, where he’s assigned the task of obtaining an interview with a man many believe is crucial to stopping war in Europe, Van Meer (Albert Basserman).

albert-basserman-joel-mccrea-in-foreign-correspondent
Albert Basserman, Joel McCrea

He’s also given a new name, Huntley Haverstock, by his editor. Before leaving for Europe, he’s introduced to Stephen Fisher (Herbert Marshall), who will be holding a luncheon for Van Meer shortly after Jones/Haverstock arrives in London.

On his way to that luncheon, Haverstock chances on Van Meer in the streets of London and attempts to interview him in a shared taxi ride. Even less successful than that conversation are his efforts at charming Fisher’s daughter, Carol, whom he meets at the event. Much to his surprise, Stephen Fisher announces Van Meer was unable to attend as planned.

From there Haverstock is drawn into a whirlwind of shootings, windmills, love, lies and intrigue until the dramatic final scenes in a plane shot down by enemy fire. Helping him solve the mystery is fellow reporter Scott ffolliet (George Sanders), who spells his name without any capitalization in honor of an ancestor who was beheaded by Henry VIII.

joel-mccrea-in-foreign-correspondent
Joel McCrea

Foreign Correspondent is ripe with humor despite its heavy subject matter and setting in countries on the verge of war. That’s due in part to dialogue written by Algonquin Roundtable member Robert Benchley, among others. Benchley also co-stars in the film as a drunken, complacent reporter.

In addition to the fine writing, the special effects are remarkably compelling even today, more than 75 years and innumerable generations of advancement since. Most notably is the work done with the plane shot down by enemy fire. Its beauty is in its reality; there is no reliance on the melodramatic, and the thoughts and emotions of the characters on board are easily communicated.

george-sanders-in-foreign-correspondent
George Sanders (seated, center)

It was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay, but won none. That year’s winner for Best Picture was Rebecca, another Hitchcock film.

Hitchcock reportedly wanted Gary Cooper for the lead role, but Cooper turned it down, not wanting to star in a “thriller,” a genre that at that time did not have the respect of many in Hollywood. Cooper later admitted to Hitchcock he regretted his decision.

The closing scene, with Haverstock giving a radio address while the city is being bombed around him, was shot after Hitchcock had visited England and reported it was expected Germany would begin bombing London at any time. While the rest of the movie has only brief elements of patriotism, that scene is pure propaganda, aimed at an American audience not yet engaged in the war in Europe, which at the time of the movie’s release had been raging for months.

The Big Sleep (1946)

Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep

The Big Sleep, 1946, Warner Bros. Starring Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall. Directed by Howard Hawks. B&W, 113 minutes.

Summoned to work on one case, then turned around for the real story, hard-boiled private detective Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) finds more mystery — and murder — at every turn. It starts with the sultry daughter of his client, Vivian Rutledge (Lauren Bacall), who’s certain not all is as it seems in her father’s instructions for his investigation.

Her sister Carmen (Martha Vickers) has already made an impression on Marlowe, who drily notes her frisky greeting to her father. Her wild reputation is confirmed when Marlowe finds her that evening drugged and hovering over a dead man, with no apparent concern for the circumstances.

He carries her back to Vivian’s care, then returns to investigate the scene he left, only to discover the corpse is gone. The body was apparently that of one Owen Taylor, who later is believed to have driven off a pier to his death.

Early on this movie establishes itself with racy talk and heavy-laden sexual innuendo, and the story is convoluted and challenging to follow. Critics then and now agree: you watch The Big Sleep for the dialogue, not the plot.

Time magazine’s movie critic wrote at the time, “The Big Sleep is wakeful fare for folks who don’t care what is going on, or why, so long as the talk is hard and the action harder.” In a 1997 review of the film, Roger Ebert wrote, “it’s unusual to find yourself laughing in a movie not because something is funny but because it’s so wickedly clever.”

Lauren Bacall, Humphrey Bogart
Lauren Bacall, Humphrey Bogart

Based on the novel of the same name by Raymond Chandler, some questions about the plot go unanswered. In her autobiography, By Myself, Bacall recalled one day when Bogart asked, “who pushed Taylor off the pier?” Everything stopped, she claimed, for no one knew.

Biographers of both Howard Hawks and Chandler tell of the telegram Hawks sent to Chandler asking if Taylor was murdered or committed suicide. Chandler later wrote a friend, “dammit I didn’t know either.”

Yet that confusion doesn’t seem to matter with a movie that contains the famous and provocative “horse racing” conversation between Bogart and Bacall. For her part, Bacall claimed she was somewhat naÏve about the dialogue, not fully recognizing its sexual nature, but no matter. In real life the two were falling deeply in love, and the chemistry between them is palpable. (They married between the time production was completed and the film was released.)

While the movie was made to accent the chemistry between Bogart and Bacall, director Hawks didn’t approve of their romance. He and his wife repeatedly spoke to Bacall about the dangers of this intense relationship, and tried fixing her up with any number of other actors, including Clark Gable.

Hawks owned Bacall’s contract, and after The Big Sleep was completed, he sold it to Warner Bros. In short order, they increased her pay from $350 a week to $1,000.

Lauren Bacall, Humphrey Bogart, Martha Vickers
Lauren Bacall, Humphrey Bogart, Martha Vickers

The film was originally completed in 1945, but studio executives were said to be anxious to capitalize both on Bogart and Bacall’s popularity as a couple and Bacall’s image of smouldering sexuality, and didn’t feel there was enough of either element. In January, 1946 several new scenes were shot and a new version of the film was edited.

The 1945 version of The Big Sleep is only two minutes longer than the final, released 1946 version, but about twenty minutes of the actual scenes included in the film are different. A scene detailing the crimes being investigated was cut, as well as much of the footage that included Vickers, reportedly because some thought she was more sultry than Bacall.

A true classic, The Big Sleep is required viewing for all film noir fans and indeed, anyone interested in the magic of filmmaking. Far from a typical murder mystery, it delivers a sharp, calibrated, sexy look at the people and process involved with solving a crime.

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet The Maltese Falcon

The Maltese Falcon, 1941, Warner Bros. Starring Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre. Directed by John Huston. B&W, 100 minutes.

In foggy San Francisco, world-weary private detective Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) has taken on a new case from beauty Ruth Wonderly (Mary Astor). Spade’s partner, Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan), is clearly attracted to Miss Wonderly and agrees to go undercover that night on her behalf. While seeking out the man she believes can help her, he is fatally shot — and so is the subject of his search.

Spade discovers, or rather confirms, that Ruth Wonderly is not her real name, and she is apparently Brigid O’Shaughnessy. The two are caught up in a passionate affair, yet that seemingly doesn’t cloud his judgment in uncovering clues in the case.

Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor
Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor

Spade does determine the real crux of Brigid’s concern is the Maltese Falcon, an ancient small statue encrusted in rare jewels that is being transported to San Francisco. Enter Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre), a small, slick man whose loyalties aren’t clear and character is, and the “Fat Man,” Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet), whose dedication to anyone or anything is centered around obtaining the elusive statue.

Considered by many the first of the film noir style movies, it set a standard for such that was challenging to meet. The film was based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett, which was originally serialized in five parts in a popular magazine of the time, Black Mask. The novel was far more provocative than censors of the time would allow movies to be, although as a film The Maltese Falcon does a good job of letting in a strong sexual element.

It was nominated for three Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Actor in a Supporting Role for Greenstreet and Best Adapted Screenplay for John Huston. This was also Huston’s directorial debut, along with Greenstreet’s screen debut, at the age of 61, after a long stage career.

Mary Astor, Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre in The Maltese Falcon
Mary Astor, Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre

The movie was made three times; this was the third and undoubtedly the best. Uncharacteristic to the times, Huston’s screenplay stayed true to the original story, and his directing carried the atmosphere of the novel to the screen. Taking a complex story written by one of the most accomplished mystery writers of our time and bringing it to the screen in a manner true to the original is an enormous task, and Huston did it.

George Raft was first offered the role of Sam Spade, but he considered the movie unimportant and was unhappy at the thought of working with a first-time director. He had also turned down the lead in High Sierra, the role that had then launched Bogart’s leading man career, and is rumored to have later turned down the part of Rick in Casablanca. A rumor that is just as likely to be a good story as the truth, but it is a good story.

The role of Brigid was first turned down by rising star Geraldine Fitzgerald, who, among other reasons, didn’t want to star beside then B-movie actor Humphrey Bogart. Mary Astor had no such reservations and leapt at the chance to play the complex, dark woman whose motives and actions were always suspect.

Mary Astor, Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon.png
Mary Astor, Humphrey Bogart

Greenstreet and Lorre played off each other well — Greenstreet the self-confident, bigger-than-life character and Lorre the small, nervous, somewhat odd and unpredictable man. They appeared together in nine more films, notably Casablanca a year later. Their supporting roles in that film were as critical to the story as was Bogart’s leading man performance.

The Maltese Falcon is a film you can see one hundred times over and never view in quite the same way twice. It is complex, underplayed yet exciting, and full of subtle, rich details that fill the screen. A must-see for all classic film fans.

 

 


The Thin Man

The Thin Man Myrna Loy, Asta, William Powell

The Thin Man, 1934, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Starring William Powell, Myrna Loy, Maureen O’Sullivan. Directed by W.S. Van Dyke. B&W, 93 minutes.

Nick Charles (William Powell), a retired detective with a droll wit, is a man who’s happy to now live on his wife’s fortune and, well, drink a lot. Nora (Myrna Loy), for her part, is a classy, sassy woman capable of keeping up with her husband in both drinks and saucy banter. Joining the two in their convivial life is Asta the dog.

(It’s important to note this movie was made two years after the end of Prohibition, so the Charles’ drinking was looked upon, and portrayed, in a different light.)

Despite his contentment in retirement, Nick is drawn into a case by the daughter of a long-time friend of his, Clyde Wynant (Edward Ellis). Wynant has abruptly disappeared, and the appealing Dorothy (Maureen O’Sullivan) pleads with Nick to look into it. Nick can’t resist helping Dorothy — after all, he’s known her since she was an infant — and ultimately, it’s his expertise that leads the police to the truth.

Myrna Loy, William Powell
Myrna Loy, William Powell

Simple case? Not a chance.

This plot goes down a winding path and brings in a long list of viable suspects. Nick, in his dry, observational manner, notes key elements the detective misses, ultimately leading them to what turns out to be the skeletal remains of the murder victim.

The group of suspects is brought together at a dinner party in the Charles’ home, where Nick skillfully pares down the list until the guilty individual is revealed.

This was the second of 14 films Powell & Loy would make together, including the six in the Thin Man series. Their chemistry was immediate and never failed, and they were a match in the pace and timing of their repartee and delivery.

Their performances are key to the success of the film, but the numerous Damon Runyon-esque characters play an important part in the overall feel of a fine & fun mystery.

William Powell, Myrna Loy
William Powell, Myrna Loy

The screenplay was based on the immensely popular novel of the same name by Dashiell Hammett, one of the most highly-regarded mystery writers of all time. The adaptation was written by the husband/wife team of Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, who were also responsible for the screenplays of numerous other notable films, including It’s A Wonderful Life and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.

The Thin Man was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor in a Leading Role, and Best Adapted Screenplay. These nominations were a somewhat remarkable feat and a tribute to all involved in the production, as the movie was given a “B” movie budget (read: small) and a short time frame for completion. Studio executives had low expectations.

Well, always easier to deliver when no one’s looking for success.

A little piece of trivia: contrary to popular belief, “The Thin Man” refers to the murder victim, not Nick Charles. However, that name caught on and was also used in the title of every other film in the series.

 

Laura (1944)

Vincent Price, Clifton Webb, Gene Tierney in Laura

Laura, 1944, 20th Century Fox. Starring Dana Andrews, Gene Tierney, Clifton Webb. Directed by Otto Preminger. B&W, 88 minutes.

A film-noir classic of murder, love and obsession, Laura epitomizes that genre in many ways with its stark cinematography, urgent narration and moody drama.

Detective Mark MacPherson (Dana Andrews) is called to investigate the murder of a beautiful young advertising executive, Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney). He begins his interviews of her penthouse society crowd with one of her closest friends, the caustic, odd and self-centered Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), whose jealousy over his protegé’s engagement to the ingratiating Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price) is evident.

Through a series of flashbacks, Laura’s story is told, and MacPherson finds himself drawn into the circle of the captivating woman’s male admirers. As Lydecker scathingly notes, the detective has begun to dream of a life with his murder victim, getting to know her through her personal correspondence and diary.

A twist in the tale throws the investigation onto a whole new course, with a winding path of discovery.

Clifton Webb, Dana Andrews in Laura
Clifton Webb, Dana Andrews

Laura has a number of odd elements, such as the investigation techniques of Detective MacPherson and the effete personality of Lydecker, who appears to be in love in Laura. The story doesn’t suffer from any of these incongruities, however; the tension and cinematic reality hold firm.

For several of the cast, this was a career-launching film. It was a breakout role for Clifton Webb, who was in his 50s at the time and primarily had worked on stage. For both Gene Tierney and Dana Andrews, who were also fairly new to moviegoers, the film helped establish A-list recognition from their peers and audiences.

Even the director, Otto Preminger, found his film career taking off again with the success of Laura, after having been shunned by Hollywood because of disputes with powerhouse Darryl Zanuck.

Followers of Vincent Price will be surprised by the subservient nature of his character, quite a departure from his career-defining persona in thrillers and horror films. Despite the difference, he’s decisively believable, showing well his broad range of talent, and this role is considered by some as one of his best.

Dana Andrews, Gene Tierney in Laura
Dana Andrews (portrait of Gene Tierney as Laura)

The haunting melody of the music score was also immediately popular with audiences, who began to ask for recordings and sheet music. A year after the film was released, Johnny Mercer added lyrics, and the song Laura became an instant musical standard and one of the most recorded songs of all time.

Laura was nominated for several Academy Awards, including Best Director and Best Supporting Actor (Clifton Webb), and won for Best Black & White Cinematography.

Today this movie is considered by many to be definitive film noir, and the mystery and suspense don’t lessen with time. It is Hollywood at its best.