Harvey Stephens

You Can’t Get Away with Murder (1939, Lewis Seiler)

The You in You Can’t Get Away With Murder refers to Billy Halop, nineteen year-old punk kid who doesn’t respect what sister Gale Page sacrifices for him and instead runs around with neighborhood tough Humphrey Bogart. They knock over gas stations, they play pool, it’s a good life… at least until things go wrong during a hold-up—with Bogart’s not billed victim using what looks like (but sadly can’t be) a Krav Maga disarm on him, forcing Bogart to use the gun he took off Halop instead of his regular piece. Only Halop got his gun from sister Page’s boyfriend’s apartment. Harvey Stephens is the boyfriend, some kind of reserve cop or security guard. It gets established by the car Stephens is driving in the first or second scene… I wasn’t paying attention. I thought he was a cabbie.

As Halop and Bogart get pinched for a different hold-up, the cops gossip about Stephens’s getting arrested for the murder Halop knows Bogart committed. End first act, let’s go second.

Bogart and Halop are in Sing Sing for five year sentences—the film, which looks like an A picture from time to time, usually thanks to Sol Polito’s gorgeous photography and Bogart’s phenomenally slimy performance, has a great introduction to Sing Sing with a tour boat introducing it. Things are fine enough, save Harold Huber trying to convince Bogart to dump Halop and make Huber his number one pal, which eventually becomes important but never to character development. There isn’t any character development in Murder. It’s important because after Stephens gets sent to the prison’s death house and Halop starts feeling pangs of guilt at not telling the truth, Huber’s able to poison an increasingly suspicious Bogart against his buddy.

It does help Bogart loses Halop to the prison library, where kindly, aged inmate librarian Henry Travers works toward rehabilitating the lad best he can without ever being able to say the word, “Jesus.” Having Travers get to lay in with religious indoctrination instead of just vague “you won’t be able to live with yourself if you don’t tell the truth” business probably wouldn’t improve Murder, but it might give Travers something to chew on in his performance. What he’s got is pretty thin; three screenwriters—Robert Buckner, Don Ryan, Kenneth Gamet—and they can’t come up with good monologues. I do wonder if one of them came up with the train car in the middle of the prison yard for the breakout standoff, or if it was a group effort.

Because once Page realizes Halop knows something, she tries to get him to save Murphy too, which Halop resents. Maybe if Murder went a different way—i.e. not into prison—it’d be able to get through with Halop, but he’s never good. Like… just… no. He’s never good. Sometimes when he’s doing his fidgeting stuff it seems like it could lead to something good—if he weren’t talking in bad Jimmy Cagney impressions—but he never breaks from the exaggerated deliveries. Bogart’s able to amp it up, quiet it down like none other. He’s awesome. No one else is even close. I mean, Huber and Travers are only good about thirty percent of the time, which isn’t a lot given their importance.

Page is fine. She’s got nothing to do but moon over Stephens, who’s eh (you can see why Halop doesn’t like him), and fret over Halop.

If the movie didn’t treat him like a racist caricature, Eddie 'Rochester' Anderson would win for actor you most like to see onscreen. But the movie cranks the racism from about a two (for 1939) to about a six, which is way too much. Wasting Anderson’s voice is bad enough.

And George E. Stone isn’t good as the main prison gossip, who’s always around to advance the plot. He’s ineffectual. Against Halop, which is incredible.

Even if Halop were good, even if Seiler didn’t get weird with almost all the close-ups—the medium shots are fine, the close-ups are intentionally but pointlessly askew—the script would still be blah. Even with Bogart being great… well, there are better movies to see Bogart doing the same thing in.

That Polito photography is fantastic though. Especially at the end.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Lewis Seiler; screenplay by Robert Buckner, Don Ryan, and Kenneth Gamet, based on a play by Lewis E. Lawes and Jonathan Finn; director of photography, Sol Polito; edited by James Gibbon; music by Heinz Roemheld; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Billy Halop (Johnnie Stone), Humphrey Bogart (Frank Wilson), Gale Page (Madge Stone), Harvey Stephens (Fred Burke), Henry Travers (Pop), Harold Huber (Scappa), Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson (Sam), and George E. Stone (Toad), Joe Sawyer (Red), Joe Downing (Smitty), and John Litel (Attorney Carey).


The Bat (1959, Crane Wilbur)

There ought to be something good about The Bat, but there really isn’t anything. Agnes Moorehead is actually quite good, all things considered, and Vincent Price seems game too. Moorehead’s a successful mystery novelist vacationing in a scary old house–summering, actually–and Price is a murderous physician. Why is Price murderous? So the audience can suspect his every action in the film.

After a protracted first act, The Bat gets underway with terrifying Moorehead. Only Moorehead doesn’t terrify, she tries to get to the bottom of the mystery. It ought to be a cool turn of events, but director Wilbur’s screenplay is as abysmal as his direction (The Bat’s a thriller without any thrills whatsoever) and he doesn’t give Moorehead anything to work with. He doesn’t give anyone anything to work with, but Moorehead is visibly capable of improving a thin part. She just doesn’t get the chance.

The dialogue’s usually expository (Moorehead’s got such a bad part, her sojourn to the country never gets a good enough description). Sometimes it’s so expository Wilbur has to backtrack to explain how the characters could possibly know something, given it’s against all their previous development.

Like I said, Price’s game but he has nothing to do. Gavin Gordon’s bad as the investigating detective and Lenita Lane’s awful as Moorehead’s sidekick. Elaine Edwards isn’t bad.

William Austin’s editing is weak, though with Wilbur’s dreadful composition it’d be hard to cut together a good scene out of any of it. I suppose Joseph F. Biroc doesn’t do too bad with the cinematography. It’s competent, anyway, though not scary.

The fault lies with Wilbur. His script’s bad, his direction’s bad. Between Moorehead, Price and an old dark, house, there’s no reason The Bat shouldn’t have been at least amusing.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Crane Wilbur; screenplay by Wilbur, based on a play by Mary Roberts Rinehart and Avery Hopwood; director of photography, Joseph F. Biroc; edited by William Austin; music by Louis Forbes; produced by C.J. Tevlin; released by Allied Artists Pictures.

Starring Agnes Moorehead (Cornelia van Gorder), Lenita Lane (Lizzie Allen), Elaine Edwards (Dale Bailey), Darla Hood (Judy Hollander), Gavin Gordon (Lt. Andy Anderson), John Sutton (Warner), John Bryant (Mark Fleming), Harvey Stephens (John Fleming), Mike Steele (Victor Bailey), Riza Royce (Jane Patterson), Robert Williams (Detective Davenport) and Vincent Price (Dr. Malcolm Wells).


Whipsaw (1935, Sam Wood)

Whipsaw takes some detours, but eventually reveals itself as an unlikely road picture… albeit one with limited stops.

The first few scenes are in London, with a lot of exposition introducing Myrna Loy and Harvey Stephens as jewel thieves. There are some other jewel thieves who want in on their score. At this point, Whipsaw seems like it’s going to take place entirely at sea.

But then it skips to New York, three weeks later, with both the cops and the rival crooks staking out Loy in hopes of finding Stephens.

At this point, there are about eight characters to remember–all of whom might end up being significant to the plot.

Then Spencer Tracy shows up as an undercover cop. Even after he does, it still takes Whipsaw another twenty minutes to finally define itself. While Howard Emmett Rogers’s script is messy and often meanders, there’s a lot of enthusiasm to it. The structure’s odd, since Tracy’s deceiving Loy, who he assumes is deceiving him; it doesn’t work for the first act, but once the couple is on the road… Whipsaw gets good.

Loy and Tracy are both fantastic. Their characters have to respect the other’s intellect, try to outsmart the other one and constantly lie. It creates a lot of personal conflict, which the actors essay beautifully.

Wood’s direction–aided by James Wong Howe’s wondrous photography–has some sublime moments but not enough. Basil Wrangell’s editing is weak.

The earnest ending misfires. Loy and Tracy weather it ably.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Sam Wood; screenplay by Howard Emmett Rogers, based on a story by James Edward Grant; director of photography, James Wong Howe; edited by Basil Wrangell; music by William Axt; produced by Wood and Harry Rapf; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Myrna Loy (Vivian Palmer), Spencer Tracy (Ross McBride), Harvey Stephens (Ed Dexter), William Harrigan (‘Doc’ Evans), Clay Clement (Harry Ames), Robert Gleckler (Steve Arnold), Robert Warwick (Robert W. Wadsworth), Georges Renavent (Monetta), Paul Stanton (Justice Department Chief Hughes), Wade Boteler (Detective Humphries), Don Rowan (Curley), John Qualen (Will Dabson), Irene Franklin (Madame Marie), Lillian Leighton (Aunt Jane), J. Anthony Hughes (Justice Department Agent Bailey), William Ingersoll (Dr. Williams) and Charles Irwin (Larry King).


Evelyn Prentice (1934, William K. Howard)

Evelyn Prentice only runs eighty minutes, but it goes on forever. At seventeen minutes alone, it’s getting tiring. The big problem is the lack of thoughtful approach. It’s constantly revealing big twists, twists to shock the audience, but they just end up detracting from the film’s possibilities. Because Evelyn Prentice is not a deep study of floundering marriages or endless guilt. It’s an adultery melodrama, down to the frequent fade-outs to punctuate “affecting” scenes. It’s not even an interesting adultery melodrama–there’s a whole courtroom angle the film never shows, just because it’s withholding information the scenes would reveal. Information the film’s principles, reading newspapers, would know (but somehow do not).

It’s a frustrating film too, because of Myrna Loy and William Powell. It’s one of their least successful pairings, because Powell’s playing toward their standard (after a first act diversion) and Loy is not. She’s in a different film completely. Powell’s in one where Edward Brophy pops in for comic relief, Loy’s in one where she’s ready to collapse from internal struggle. But the script doesn’t know how to tell that story (Prentice is 1934 MGM, not a lot of subtlety) and it’s too bad, since director Howard probably would have done better with that approach than the melodrama one. He’s got one great shot at the end, makes up for the frequent panning and generally lackluster direction.

Both Loy and Powell have some good moments, but since they’re in these genre-defined, rote roles, it’s really the supporting cast who have the best roles. Well, the best roles for actors, not necessarily the best written (the script treats the entire supporting cast as superfluous). Una Merkel’s role, for instance, is to give Myrna Loy someone to have scenes with. Merkel does a fine job in the thankless role, but at least she gets to be in the whole picture. Henry Wadsworth has a lot of fun at the beginning as Merkel’s constantly intoxicated romantic interest. Then he disappears, once Powell returns to the film.

The stuff with Loy and Powell and their kid, played by Cora Sue Collins, is actually pretty darn good, though the scenes still have that disconnect–Loy and Powell aren’t acting in the same film.

Rosalind Russell pops in for a minute too–even though she’s pretty bad, had her character stayed in the film, it would have really helped things out.

At eighty minutes, Evelyn Prentice is an abbreviated but still monotonous melodrama. None of the acting really makes it worth seeing (Loy’s been just as good in similar roles in good movies and Powell’s not doing anything special) and that one shot at the end is too paltry a reward. Had the film run much longer–around two hours–and been a big melodrama, it would have been better. The same problems would probably still be there, but maybe the added minutes who make it more compelling. As it runs, there’s just not enough going on to make it watchable.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by William K. Howard; screenplay by Lenore J. Coffee, based on the novel by W.E. Woodward; director of photography, Charles G. Clarke; edited by Frank E. Hull; music by R.H. Bassett; produced by John W. Considine Jr.; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring William Powell (John Prentice), Myrna Loy (Evelyn Prentice), Una Merkel (Amy Drexel), Rosalind Russell (Mrs. Nancy Harrison), Isabel Jewell (Judith Wilson), Harvey Stephens (Lawrence Kennard), Edward Brophy (Eddie Delaney), Henry Wadsworth (Chester Wylie), Cora Sue Collins (Dorothy Prentice), Frank Conroy (Dist. Atty. Farley) and Jessie Ralph (Mrs. Blake).


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