Sunday, September 22, 2019

Johnny Allegro (1949)

Johnny Allegro is a 1949 Columbia film noir starring George Raft. Now if you’re a regular reader you’ll know that George Raft’s name in the credits is more than enough to entice me.

Johnny Allegro (Raft) is a florist, and apparently a fairly successful one. Then Glenda Chapman (Nina Foch) waltzes up to him in the lobby of the hotel in which his florist shop is situated and starts kissing him. Which is slightly surprising since he’s never set eyes on her before. She hurried explains that she needs him to pretend to know her so she can get out of the building. She’s being tailed by some guy (and Johnny has already spotted the guy as being a cop). What can you do when a beautiful blonde you don’t know asks you to help her out in that kind of situation? You help her out. She is a beautiful blonde after all.

Within the first few minutes Raft, in the most effortless manner, has let us know everything we need to now about Johnny Allegro. He has a shady past (people without shady pasts don’t recognise someone as a cop with a single glance), he’s a guy with a sublime confidence in his ability to handle himself, he likes women and he’s prepared to take risks.

We find out a bit more about him later on. He used to go by the name of Johnny Rock. He’s been in Sing Sing and he left the prison several years ago without bothering to let the prison authorities know he was leaving. We also find out that he was a war hero. He may have had his differences with the law but he’s more than just a common hoodlum.

As for Glenda, she’s a Woman of Mystery. Johnny has no idea what she’s up to. He doesn’t care. He’s hooked.

In fact he’s hooked in more ways than one. He’s had an interesting conversation with a guy called Schultzy (Will Geer). Schultzy is a Treasury Agent and he’s real interested in Glenda. He wants Johnny’s help in the case and he holds out the implied promise that Johnny’s difficulties with the authorities can be made to go away. Johnny doesn’t care too much about that either. He the kind of guy who only cares about the important things in life, like beautiful blondes.

Glenda wants to disappear somewhere and she wants Johnny’s help. At this point he’s going to follow her wherever she decides to go.

Johnny is a fairly typical noir protagonist. He’s an ex-criminal but that was in the past and now he’s a respectable citizen with a solid business. He has an eye for the ladies but he’s a pretty nice guy. He’s well-liked. But like any good noir protagonist he has a couple of weaknesses. His weaknesses are dames and his tendency to take risks. Those weaknesses are going to get him deeply involved with dangerous people. People like Morgan Vallin (George Macready), and people like Glenda.

George Raft is close to being my favourite actor of this era. He has a minimalist acting style which to everyone likes but it’s a style of acting that I like very much. I’m also a fan of Alan Ladd and Robert Mitchum. It’s an acting style that is much harder to pull off successfully than it looks. George Raft practically invented it and no-one does it better. He doesn’t have to go around slugging guys to convince you he’s a tough guy. In this movie we see him arranging flowers and he does it in a way that lets you know that his confidence in his toughness is absolute. Raft also had charm, and he had cool in prodigious quantities.

Nina Foch had an unbelievably long acting career (65 years in the business) and she was no stranger to film noir. She handles the femme fatale rĂ´le without any difficulties and her chemistry with Raft is subtle but effective.

George Macready of course was always a great villain. In this case he combines menace with hints of craziness and does so with panache. Will Geer is excellent as Schultzy, the Treasury Agent who has plenty of tricks up his sleeve.

Ted Tetzlaff was a cinematographer turned director. As a director he has an honest workman rather than an artist but he knows what he’s doing here. The script, by Karen DeWolf and Guy Endore from a story by James Edward Grant, has some nice hardboiled dialogue (which the three main stars relish) and a decent plot. It’s a movie that moves along at a brisk pace and it has enough noir style to satisfy those who enjoy such things.

The climactic hunt scenes on the island are pretty exciting.

Johnny Allegro was released on DVD by Sony and it’s also available in the nine-movie Noir Archive Blu-Ray set from Kit Parker Films. The Blu-Ray release was essentially a way to fit nine movies on three discs. Johnny Allegro gets a transfer that is basically DVD quality, but good DVD quality. Image quality is excellent.

As George Raft movies go it’s not quite in the same league as the superb Nocturne or even the underrated Johnny Angel but Johnny Allegro is still a treat for George Raft fans. He’s in top form and this movie delivers solid entertainment. Highly recommended.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Cover Girl (1944)

What ingredients do you need for a successful musical? You need songs, dancing, a few laughs, some romance and you need glamour. Columbia’s 1944 Technicolor musical extravaganza Cover Girl has all these elements. The songs are pretty good. The dancing is provided by Rita Hayworth and Gene Kelly so it’s obviously top-notch. The comedy is provided by Phil Silvers and Eve Arden and it’s reasonably good. The romance angle works. And it has absolutely outrageous amounts of glamour. Cover Girl should work perfectly, and to a large extent it does.

The plot is your standard off-the-shelf backstage musical plot as used in countess other musicals. It doesn’t matter. This movie has more than enough going for it in every other department.

Rusty Parker (Rita Hayworth) and Danny McGuire (Gene Kelly) are a dancing team in Danny’s Brooklyn night club. Danny is grooming Rusty for stardom. It’s not something you can rush. Danny knows that if it happens too fast it won't last. You need patience and careful judgment. And then Rusty, more by accident than anything else, is picked as the cover girl for Vanity magazine’s 50th anniversary issue and it all starts happening much too fast. Maybe not too fast for Rusty, but too fast for Danny. Danny thought that he and Rusty would reach stardom together but now Rusty doesn’t need him. Which is a double blow since he’s madly in love with her.

It’s not that Rusty is selfish or ungrateful to Danny. She’s not that kind of girl. It’s just that opportunity has beckoned and she can’t very well say no to it. And before she knows what’s happening she’s on a roller-coaster road to fame and fortune and she couldn’t get off if she tried.

Vanity magazine publisher John Coudair (Otto Kruger) had had a disastrous romance with Rusty’s grandmother Maribelle forty years earlier and he wants to recapture his past by marrying Rusty. There are several flashback sequences, some successful and some less so, with Hayworth as Maribelle. Broadway impresario Noel Wheaton (Lee Bowman) is also after Rusty although whether he’s really in love with her or just sees her as a potential star who will make him a lot of money is open to debate. Sooner or later Rusty will have to make her choice.

In 1944 Gene Kelly was not yet a major star but he was ambitious. Not just ambitious for stardom. He and his co-choreographer Stanley Donen wanted to take the movie musical in new directions. Cover Girl is a sort of dry run for their later collaborations. They didn’t yet have enough clout to do exactly what they wanted but this film did give them the chance to put some of their ideas into practice. The famous sequence of Gene Kelly dancing with himself, trying to work through his fears and doubts, is a pointer to the future.

At this stage Rita Hayworth was a star but not yet in the top rank. Cover Girl would make her a very big star indeed. While Kelly is very good the movie belongs to Hayworth. She demonstrates her star quality in no uncertain terms.

Eve Arden is terrific and very funny as Coudair’s assistant. Phil Silvers is a matter of taste. I don’t mind him and in the 40s the hero in a movie like this had to have a comic sidekick.

This is an odd sort of musical. It’s an old-fashioned backstage musical trying rather tentatively to push the boundaries of the genre. The thin script is the main problem. It undermines the attempts to give the characters more psychological depth than was customary in a mid-40s musical.

The Region 4 DVD doesn’t have much in the way of extras, apart from a very brief but perceptive interview with Baz Luhrmann. It offers an excellent transfer. The colours look great.

Despite some weaknesses this is a must-see for Gene Kelly fans. The innovations he introduced to the genre are all here, albeit in embryo. And it’s a must-see for Rita Hayworth fans who want to see her at her most seductive. Cover Girl is highly recommended.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

For You I Die (1947)

For You I Die is a Poverty Row film noir from 1947.

Johnny Coulter (Paul Langton) and Matt Gruber (Don C. Harvey) have just busted out of prison. Only Johnny didn’t want to escape. Gruber put a gun in his ribs and forced him to help him escape. Johnny was a trusty and only had a year left to serve so he’s pretty unhappy about the whole situation. In any case he heads for Maggie Dillon’s diner where Matt assures him that his girlfriend Hope Novak will look after him.

When Johnny gets there he meets a girl and assuming it’s Hope he spills the whole story. But this girl isn’t Hope, she’s Georgie, who also works at the diner. Hope, even though she’s a convict’s girlfriend, is a good girl. Georgie maybe isn’t so good. So it may have been a mistake to tell everything to Georgie.

Hope is pretty sensible. She tries to persuade Johnny that the smart thing to do would probably be to give himself up (and she’s undoubtedly correct). But if a film noir protagonist ever did the smart thing we wouldn’t have a film.

Maggie offers Johnny work pumping gas at the diner and for a while it seems like he’s safe. He has a bit of a scare when the diner is held up but he comes out of that looking like a hero. There is however the problem of Georgie. If ever a girl was an obvious femme fatale it’s Georgie. And she’s decided she likes the look of Johnny. It’s a pretty reasonable assumption that Georgie is going to cause some trouble before this movie ends.

The real problem is that Matt Gruber has arranged to meet Johnny at the diner in a few days’ time. That’s going to be really awkward since Johnny and Hope have grown kinda fond of one another. Matt might not take too kindly to that, and Matt is a psychotic thug. Before Matt arrives Johnny will have to decide what he’s going to do - is he going to wait for Matt, is he going to give himself up, is he going to make a run for it with bad girl Georgie or is he going to try to make a run for it with good girl Hope?

The real problem for the movie is that there’s not enough plot for the 76 minute running time. There’s not near enough plot. For much too long the characters talk about doing things and wait for things to happen but nothing actually happens. When things finally do start to move at the end of the movie we get a climax that is OK though perhaps a bit contrived.

Paul Langton is quite effective as Johnny. Johnny is a guy with a chip on his shoulder the size of Arizona but Langton is able to make him reasonably sympathetic. Cathy Downs is very good as Hope, a good girl who perhaps has a past that is more colourful than it should be. She’s an actress whose career never really took off for some reason. Jane Weeks goes a bit too over-the-top as the bad girl Georgie but her performance is great fun.

There’s some very irritating and completely out-of-place comic relief from Mischa Auer as an eccentric Russian cab driver-musician-artist, and it goes on and on. And there’s more feeble comic relief from Roman Bohnen as the drunk cook Smitty.

The Alpha Video DVD offers us a transfer that is atrocious even by their standards. The problem it’s that much of the film takes place at night, and the night scenes are so dark that it’s difficult to keep track of what is going on and who is who. On the other hand if you want to see this movie this might be the only way to see it.

For You I Die almost makes it as a compelling film noir. It has good moments. It has one priceless gem of film noir dialogue. It has fairly good performances. But it’s too slow and gets sidetracked too often by irrelevancies and the ending doesn’t quite deliver the goods. There are some truly wonderful Poverty Row film noir obscurities, movies that turn out to be neglected gems, but this isn’t one of them. It’s not awful but it’s not all that good. Maybe worth a rental.