Jim Backus

Deadline – U.S.A. (1952, Richard Brooks)

Deadline – U.S.A. is about half a great movie. Director Brooks fills the film with a superb supporting cast of character actors–Paul Stewart, Audrey Christie and Jim Backus are the standouts–and lets them share the runtime with lead Humphrey Bogart. It’s a newspaper drama… is the paper going to close down? Brooks’s script complicates it with squabbles between the heirs, a gangster (Martin Gabel in the film’s only bad performance), and Bogart’s ex-wife (Kim Hunter) about to remarry.

Brooks takes about twenty-five minutes (of the film’s ninety minute runtime) to get to the gangster story. He’s established the paper’s imminent closing, the cast, then he brings in the “big story.” Bogart and Ed Begley have wonderful scenes where they try to reason out the story. Even when Brooks’s plotting goes wrong, his scenes are extraordinarily strong. But he can never make the gangster story as important as the newspaper’s staff or whether Hunter’s going to fall for Bogart’s wooing.

In a lot of ways, Deadline is a big, glorious mess of a picture. Brooks doesn’t follow through with his initial narrative impulse–Hunter disappears for a while, to let Bogart pursue Gabel–and he plays way too loose with the time. Brooks seems to consciously avoid addressing the time.

Bogart’s fantastic–he and Ethel Barrymore (as the paper’s owner) are excellent together, as are he and Hunter. Awesome photography from Milton R. Krasner makes up for William B. Murphy’s weak editing.

Deadline‘s good, but it should be amazing.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Richard Brooks; director of photography, Milton R. Krasner; edited by William B. Murphy; music by Cyril J. Mockridge; produced by Sol C. Siegel; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Humphrey Bogart (Ed Hutcheson), Ethel Barrymore (Margaret Garrison), Kim Hunter (Nora Hutcheson), Ed Begley (Frank Allen), Warren Stevens (George Burrows), Paul Stewart (Harry Thompson), Martin Gabel (Tomas Rienzi), Joe De Santis (Herman Schmidt), Joyce Mackenzie (Katherine Garrison Geary), Audrey Christie (Mrs. Willebrandt), Fay Baker (Alice Garrison Courtney) and Jim Backus (Jim Cleary).


Rebel Without a Cause (1955, Nicholas Ray)

For a film with pioneering use of widescreen composition–the shot with the cars moving past Natalie Wood–and one of the better film performances (James Dean), Rebel Without a Cause is a curious failure. It’s loaded with content–there’s the stuff with Dean and his parents, the stuff with Wood and her father, the gang, Sal Mineo, the police, the stuff with Dean and Wood, Dean and Mineo, Mineo and his home life. It goes on and on until it finally gets to the ludicrous conclusion. The film’s entirely nuance-free. It’s probably the finest example of “Technicolor filmmaking.” Even if it was shot in Warner Color.

There are countless problems with the film’s details–like Corey Allen’s affable gang leader, Wood going from amoral sociopath (cheering on the bullies, something she never shows any regret for–her actions towards Dean, yes, but not the ones she supported). Then there’s the film’s almost unimaginable lack of subtext. There’s a frequent and rather misogynistic conflict between Dean’s parents, Jim Backus and Ann Doran. Dean’s constantly suggesting Backus needs to assert himself more and it leads to Backus sitting on the couch in a flowered apron trying to defend him. It’s like the film’s parodying itself (but it is not).

For every second he’s on screen–which is thankfully most of them–James Dean commands the film in a perfect performance. He’s in the first shot and from there on in, I don’t think there’s a single scene where Dean doesn’t do something amazing with his performance. The script occasionally gives him great material–the early scene with Edward Platt, some of the scenes with parents Backus and Doran (Backus’s browbeaten husband gets to be a bit much very quickly), and most of the scenes with him and Wood. Wood’s got a story arc all her own–the film drops it after a while, which is a bad move; the fast forward romance between her and Dean is well-acted by both, but it comes off false. The film opens with Dean, Wood and Mineo at the police station, all three with some definite problems–as the story progresses, it forgets about Dean and Wood’s problems and concentrates solely on Mineo’s, given their Cinemascope potential. The conclusion for Dean and Wood comes off goofy, but Rebel‘s been goofy for almost an hour and a half so it’s not exactly a surprise, but it is a disappointment….

The film has two conceptual failings–first, it’s a teen gang movie where we’re supposed to believe Allen’s a scary tough guy (not to mention gang fights happen at scenic spots, cheered on by a dozen middle class kids); second, it’s a continual present action. The film takes place over a day and a half. There’s the whirlwind friendship between Dean and Mineo, the whirlwind romance between Dean and Wood–both of those can get a pass (it’s a movie, after all), but the film forgets these people have been up for thirty hours. Stern’s script, so strong in the first act, kills off a kid in front of twenty other kids, none of whom freak out–no crying, not even from the kid’s girlfriend. It’s an abject oversight–Rebel Without a Cause would have been a much better film if it’d taken responsibility for that plot development and dealt with it, instead of ignoring it for the Mineo emphasis.

The story problems do bring down the film, but they can’t really vandalize Dean’s performance (or Wood’s to some degree). Like I said before, Dean’s enthralling. But Ray doesn’t keep him on screen enough, talking enough, to camouflage the plot deficiencies (the frequent, poor scenes with the teen gang on the loose jar). But Ray does a great job directing Rebel Without a Cause and that achievement–significant as it may be–doesn’t overcome the writing. Maybe because the film came from Ray’s story, so he’s embracing all the shortcomings.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Nicholas Ray; screenplay by Stewart Stern, based on an adaptation by Irving Shulman of a story by Ray; director of photography, Ernest Haller; edited by William H. Ziegler; music by Leonard Rosenman; production designer, Malcolm C. Bert; produced by David Weisbart; released by Warner Bros.

Starring James Dean (Jim Stark), Natalie Wood (Judy), Sal Mineo (Plato), Jim Backus (Frank Stark), Ann Doran (Mrs. Carol Stark), Corey Allen (Buzz Gunderson), William Hopper (Judy’s Father), Rochelle Hudson (Judy’s Mother), Dennis Hopper (Goon), Edward Platt (Ray Fremick), Steffi Sidney (Mil), Marietta Canty (Crawford family maid) and Virginia Brissac (Mrs. Stark, Jim’s grandmother).


The Killer That Stalked New York (1950, Earl McEvoy)

The premise behind The Killer That Stalked New York (shouldn’t it be Who?) is almost beyond goofy. The movie mixes one part film noir and one part medical thriller and… I mean, I don’t even know what to say about the story. It’s such a ludicrous idea (the fate of the city, under threat from a smallpox outbreak, hinges on a wronged woman on the run), it really does work to some degree. Some of it might have to do with Evelyn Keyes turning in a rather good performance as the hunted woman, but a lot of it also has to do with that wacky story.

While the movie has to take itself seriously (otherwise, it’d be a farce), it goes a little far, utilizing a voiceover narration (from someone who is not a character in the film), who hurries things along, particularly at the beginning. There’s also the problem of not defining the risks. The mayor orders the entire city vaccinated after five cases, damn the expense, but it’s never explained why they’re so worried if all the cases shown are directly related to Keyes. I know I’m asking quite a bit from a seventy-five minute Columbia B-movie, but some of it’s so obvious, someone must have noticed on set.

There are two main characters, one for each story (until Keyes disappears so she can provide some shock value later on). Keyes, like I said, is good as the carrier. The role’s terribly written, but she conveys a lot of emotion. William Bishop plays the doctor in charge; he’s after Keyes. Bishop’s real bad. Of the larger parts, Charles Korvin is best as the sleazy husband. Lots of good small performances–Art Smith, Whit Bissell, Jim Backus–offset the lousy smaller performances.

The movie shot on location in New York City and it’s great looking. McEvoy doesn’t get trapped in a noir mindset and a lot of his composition is, nicely, defined by the locations. The rest of it feels a lot like Meet John Doe Frank Capra, only with less light.

Killer is barely a diversion. Some good stuff about it, but the story’s not compelling and the major perk of watching it (besides the locations) is to catch the silly oversights.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Earl McEvoy; screenplay by Harry Essex, based on an article by Milton Lehman; director of photography, Joseph F. Biroc; edited by Jerome Thoms; music by Hans J. Salter; produced by Robert Cohn; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Evelyn Keyes (Sheila Bennet), Charles Korvin (Matt Krane), William Bishop (Dr. Ben Wood), Dorothy Malone (Alice Lorie), Lola Albright (Francie Bennet), Barry Kelley (Treasury Agent Johnson), Carl Benton Reid (Health Commissioner Ellis), Ludwig Donath (Dr. Cooper), Art Smith (Anthony Moss), Whit Bissell (Sid Bennet), Roy Roberts (Mayor of New York), Connie Gilchrist (Belle – the Landlady), Dan Riss (Skrip), Harry Shannon (Police Officer Houlihan) and Jim Backus (Willie Dennis).


Above and Beyond (1952, Melvin Frank and Norman Panama)

Above and Beyond breaks one of my severest rules–don’t start with narration and then drop it. Above and Beyond starts with Eleanor Parker narrating the film, mostly because otherwise she wouldn’t be in it for the first hour. Once she is in the film full-time, the narration quickly disappears. I can’t remember the last time there was narration, but I don’t think it was past an hour and twenty minutes, which leaves about forty percent absent of narration. The film’s about the guy who dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. I’m not up enough on my World War II history (from the American perspective) to know where the film made allowances, but it creates a compelling enough reality of its own. In many ways, the character’s saddled with more immediate responsibility than anyone else ever had before, which creates the condition for its success even though it fails on certain narrative levels.

The audience knows what’s going on and understands what Robert Taylor (as the pilot and commander) is going through. Except Eleanor Parker, as his wife, doesn’t know and the story–for a good portion–is from her emotional perspective. The film takes place over two years, with only the last hour being told in scenic detail. The rest is summary, occasionally tied together with Parker’s narration, occasionally not. The film isn’t quite a biopic, because it’s Parker holding the first hour together. Though Robert Taylor gets a lot more screen-time (maybe ninety-five percent overall), Parker’s a constant. The scenes with the two of them together, therefore, have to be perfect. They have to establish them as a married couple, they have to establish them as characters worth caring about–and co-writers and co-directors Norman Panama and Melvin Frank pull off those scenes. Maybe five minutes in that first hour is dedicated to such scenes and Panama and Frank get the work done.

Parker’s an obviously choice as the film’s best performance because she gets to do so much–play wife, play fighting wife, play new mother, play friend–while Taylor only has two general moods: upset and more upset. But Taylor’s performance is the better one–not through any fault of Parker’s, but because Frank and Panama understand how to address the gravity of the situation. It’s through little moments with Taylor.

The film came out in 1952 and has either a complex morality about the actual bombing or an undecided one. It accepts most reasoning on the subject will end up being flippant, but the film’s not about the overall morality, but the character’s. Occasionally when you turn a big story–a too big story–into a movie, something gels and it holds. Above and Beyond is probably the best of that rather specific genre. Frank and Panama manage to maintain nice filmic sensibilities throughout–giving the audience something to laugh at, making the marriage compelling–while appreciating they can’t actually tell their story… because it’s too big.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Melvin Frank and Norman Panama; written by Frank, Panama and Beirne Lay Jr.; director of photography, Ray June; edited by Cotton Warburton; music by Hugo Friedhofer; produced by Frank, Panama and Allan Fung; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Robert Taylor (Col. Paul W. Tibbets Jr), Eleanor Parker (Lucey Tibbets), James Whitmore (Maj. Uanna), Larry Keating (Maj. Gen. Vernon C. Brent), Larry Gates (Capt. Parsons), Marilyn Erskine (Marge Bratton), Stephen Dunne (Maj. Harry Bratton), Robert Burton (Gen. Samuel E. Roberts), Hayden Rorke (Dr. Ramsey), Larry Dobkin (Dr. Van Dyke), Jack Raine (Dr. Fiske), Jonathan Cott (Dutch Van Kirk), Jeff Richards (Thomas Ferebee), Dick Simmons (Bob Lewis), John McKee (Wyatt Duzenbury), Patrick Conway (Radio Operator), Christie Olsen (Paul Tibbets Jr), William Lester (Driver), Barbara Ruick (Mary Malone) and Jim Backus (Gen. Curtis E. LeMay).


Bright Victory (1951, Mark Robson)

Mark Robson made some great films. I first saw Bright Victory before I knew who he was (I think Victory was probably my first Robson, actually). I saw it on AMC in 1997 probably. Julie Adams is in it and maybe I had AMC flagged for Julie Adams movies somehow. I can’t remember if they had a website. Somehow, I saw the film. It was probably my first Arthur Kennedy film too. Kennedy’s one of those actors who’s fallen through the cracks. He never did a disaster movie or a guest on “The Love Boat.” He’s a fantastic actor and Bright Victory offers him a great role.

It’s World War II and Kennedy is blinded. Unfortunately, even though he’s the protagonist, he’s not altogether likable. He’s a Southern bigot who can’t wait to get home to marry in to money. From the title, it’s obviously Bright Victory does not end badly for Kennedy’s character. I could ramble about Bright Victory, I just realized, so I’m going to need to rein it in. First, the film’s from 1951 and a 1951 film making the lead out to be a jerk for being a bigot is a rarity. Robson had done another film about race relations (Home of the Brave), but Bright Victory is a Universal-International picture, not a smaller studio like that one. I remember, in 1997, I had never seen the issue discussed in this filmic era. Since, I’ve seen some films cover it, but never so straightforwardly.

The script, by Robert Buckner, stays with Kennedy for most of the film. The rare deviations–once for the culmination of another blind soldier’s story arc and then for a scene with the fiancée, played by Adams–don’t stick out. The film’s constructed with a roaming eye. Since Kennedy’s learning how to be blind, so is the audience. The roaming eye doesn’t stop with that usefulness, however, it goes on to become the film’s most interesting presentation principle. Bright Victory features a few scenes–three I can think of–where the characters talk to each other, but never let the audience know what’s going on. Both the characters know, but we do not. That device is never used–it’s probably one of the particularities I noticed about Bright Victory back when I first saw it.

Last, I need to go over the actors. This post is already one of the longest I’ve done–I haven’t seen Victory since the first time, probably, so I could go on and on. Peggy Dow stars as the rival love interest. She has a few particularly great scenes. James Edwards is Kennedy’s friend, again, has some great scenes. Jim Backus (from “Gilligan’s Island”) shows up and does well–Backus was a great 1950s character actor. Will Geer plays Kennedy’s father and the two have a wonderful scene together, elucidating how Kennedy’s blindness has changed their relationship. When I finished the film, I realized it managed to posit Kennedy could not have made his personal achievements without the blindness, but did never became melodramatic, contrived, or hackneyed.

TCM has the film now–they’ve played it twice–and you can even vote for a DVD release on their website (even though it’s a Universal title). It’s absolutely fantastic, just like much of Robson’s work.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Mark Robson; screenplay by Robert Buckner, based on a novel by Baynard Kendrick; director of photography, William H. Daniels; edited by Russell Schoengarth; music by Frank Skinner; produced by Buckner; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Arthur Kennedy (Larry Nevins), Peggy Dow (Judy Greene), Julie Adams (Chris Paterson), John Hudson (Corporal John Flagg), James Edwards (Joe Morgan), Nana Bryant (Mrs. Nevins), Richard Egan (Sgt. John Masterson), Jim Backus (Bill Grayson) and Will Geer (Mr. Nevins).


Boys’ Night Out (1962, Michael Gordon)

Ah, the 1960s sex comedy. I guess Hollywood was ecstatic to be able to use the word sex in a film back then. Actually, watching the film, I thought it was later, maybe 1966. But it couldn’t have been, because Kim Novak wasn’t making films in ’66 (according to IMDb). Kim Novak has always gotten a bad rap (I thought Maltin said she’d never delivered a natural performance, but that’s not the case according to IMDb’s reprint of his bio of her, so it was probably Ebert). Kim Novak’s a good actor. She comes out best in this film, though Garner has a few good moments and Tony Randall does an interesting precursor–in body language–of Niles Crane.

The film is mildly amusing, not particularly good or well-made. William Bendix is in it for a bit as a bartender and he’s great (Bendix is usually great). These “sex comedies” didn’t understand how to construct a good conclusion, even though the romantic comedy conclusion had been in place since the mid-1930s. It’s like they forgot them for a bit and you got stuck with bad endings, without rising music and such. The “morals” of the film–the intent on the husband’s part can translate, after he gets caught, into a better marriage–are incredibly offensive, another aspect of the “sex comedy,” one best exemplified by A Guide for the Married Man.

The 1960s are an incredibly odd period of cinema (not just American). They didn’t quite know what to do–Lolita was the same year as Boys’ Night Out and the same studio too. You had two forward-moving film movements, both arguably aimed at the mass market, both building on what came before, but one a little bit less self-aware (the sex comedy). Odd how it all worked out. I wonder if there was ever a specific breaking point where the pendulum got stuck….

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Michael Gordon; screenplay by Ira Wallach, based on a story by Marvin Worth and Arne Sultan, adapted by Marion Hargrove; director of photography, Arthur E. Arling; edited by Tom McAdoo; music by Frank De Vol; produced by Martin Ransohoff; and presented by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Kim Novak (Cathy), James Garner (Fred Williams), Tony Randall (George Drayton), Howard Duff (Doug Jackson), Janet Blair (Marge Drayton), Patti Page (Joanne McIllenny), Jessie Royce Landis (Ethel Williams), Oscar Homolka (Dr. Prokosch), Howard Morris (Howard McIllenny), Anne Jeffreys (Toni Jackson), Zsa Zsa Gabor (Girl with boss), Fred Clark (Mr. Bohannon), William Bendix (Slattery), Jim Backus (Peter Bowers), Larry Keating (Mr. Bingham) and Ruth McDevitt (Beaulah Patridge).


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