Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Johnny Apollo (1940)

April 19, 1940, release date
Directed by Henry Hathaway
Screenplay by Philip Dunne, Rowland Brown, Curtis Kenyon
Based on a story by Samuel G. Engel, Hal Long
Music by Cyril J. Mockridge
Edited by Richard Bischoff
Cinematography by Arthur Miller

Tyrone Power as Robert Cain Jr./Johnny Apollo
Dorothy Lamour as Lucky Dubarry
Edward Arnold as Robert Cain Sr.
Lloyd Nolan as Mickey Dwyer (aka “The Mick”)
Charley Grapewin as Judge Emmett T. Brennan
Lionel Atwill as Jim McLaughlin
Marc Lawrence as Bates
Jonathon Hale as Dr. Brown
Harry Rosenthal as the piano player
Russell Hicks as the district attorney
Charles Lane as the assistant district attorney
Fuzzy Knight as Cain Sr.’s cellmate
Ed Stanley as stock exchange announcer

Distributed by Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation
Produced by Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation

I watched Johnny Apollo over Father’s Day weekend, and it turned out to be appropriate for the holiday: The film examines the relationship between Robert Cain Sr. and his son and namesake Robert Jr. It is a film noir with a surprisingly complicated story line and lots of twists and turns in the main characters’ development.

After the opening credits, the film starts with a shot of a façade outside the New York Stock Exchange. It cuts to the interior of the stock exchange and a man announcing that the Business Conduct Committee has suspended the firm of Cain and Company from the exchange. The firm is run by Robert Cain Sr.

The film cuts to the Cain residence. Robert Cain Sr. is talking with his attorney Jim McLaughlin, and a phone call comes in from the district attorney’s office: Robert Cain Sr. has been indicted for embezzlement. McLaughlin’s reaction: “Well, they never sent a millionaire to prison as long as I can remember.” Cain Sr. is not so sanguine about his chances and says so to McLaughlin. But his biggest concern for the moment is that his son hear the news from him, not in the newscasts or from reporters.

The district attorney’s office sends officers to arrest Cain Sr. immediately, so Cain Sr. sends McLaughlin to relay the news to his son. When Robert Cain Jr. finds out about his father’s indictment, he is at college competing in a rowing meet. He is so upset by the news that he quits school on the spot. Back at home, he tells his father that he feels betrayed because his father never told him what he was doing. Here is part of their conversation:
Robert Cain Sr.: “We’re in a tough game, and we’ve got to be as tough as the other fellow or get out. You’ll find it out for yourself when you’re making your way in the world. I suppose that—"
Robert Cain Jr.: “I guess I was just dumb enough to believe what was taught to me: live by a code.”
Robert Cain Sr.: “What? The athletic code? Why, every time you ran down the field for a touchdown you had one of the best teams blocking for you that money could buy. Codes are for suckers. It’s the same in business. There’s only one rule: eat or be eaten.”
Robert Cain Jr.: “This is a swell way to find out.”

I found this exchange especially striking: It could be a conversation taking place between corrupt politicians and/or corrupt businesspeople anywhere, anytime, not just in the noir world of film. When Cain Jr. hears his father’s words, he is so angry that he leaves home, and father and son part with hard feelings. But Cain Jr. attends his father’s sentencing hearing. He never talks to his father, but he sees that gangster Mickey Dwyer is sentenced the same day, and he realizes how far his father and his career have sunk since the indictment and trial.

(This blog post about Johnny Apollo contains spoilers.)

Rather than return to college, Cain Jr. looks for work, but he cannot get a job from any of his father’s former business associates. One stalls because of Cain Sr.’s criminal record. Cain Jr. is fired from another job because he changed his name to Robert Thomas.

When Cain Jr. finds out that Mickey Dwyer is being released on parole, he asks Jim McLaughlin, his father’s attorney, to do the same for his father. McLaughlin refuses because he feels that the alternatives to make this happen are unethical. Cain Jr. decides that he will do anything to obtain his father’s release, and he decides to meet Dwyer’s attorney, Emmett T. Brennan. When he arrives at Brennan’s office, he finds the door locked and Lucky Dubarry, Mickey Dwyer’s girlfriend, waiting outside. They chat while waiting for Brennan. He arrives eventually, and he is drunk. Dubarry knows that this is a sign of trouble, but Cain Jr. ignores it.

Robert Cain Jr. gives his name as Johnny Apollo to Emmett Brennan and Lucky Dubarry when he meets the lawyer for the first time. (He takes the name after seeing a neon sign outside Brennan’s law office.) Dubarry leaves Brennan’s office to find Dwyer, and Brennan eventually passes out on a couch in his office. Mickey Dwyer shows up to find Brennan passed out and Johnny Apollo trying to help him. Dwyer takes money from Brennan’s desk and sends Apollo to pay the bail for Bates, one of his mob associates. Apollo does as he is told, but Bates tries to run away after his bail is settled. Apollo catches him and beats him into submission. Later, when he and Bates arrive at the Paradise Club, which is run by Mickey Dwyer, Apollo suddenly realizes what he has done and what he is capable of.

Lloyd Nolan plays Mickey Dwyer, a vicious gangster, in Johnny Apollo. I can’t recall ever seeing Lloyd Nolan in a gangster role before. I am used to seeing him playing the detective Michael Shayne in a series of films in which he investigates and solves crimes, all with a flair for the comedic and always tongue-in-cheek. As Dwyer, he uses people and then discards them when they are no longer useful to him. When he finds out that his moll Lucky Dubarry has betrayed him, he slaps her and nearly chokes her. He stabs his lawyer and friend with an ice pick and then carries his casket at the funeral. I have always enjoyed Nolan’s talents as a comedic actor playing Michael Shayne; now I see that he is just as good playing a criminal without even a shred of conscience.

Apollo becomes caught up in his new career working for Mickey Dwyer: He needs the money to help his father and getting it through legitimate and socially acceptable means has become almost impossible. He and his father may have parted on harsh terms, but he still wants to help his father anyway that he can. He visits his father in prison, and the rift between them seems to be on the mend. His father meanwhile takes a position as boilermaker while he is in prison. It’s a job he did before becoming a stockbroker, and he finds the work rewarding. He begins to see the advantages of honest labor, and he is dismayed when he discovers that his son has taken a new name and has started working with new and dangerous associates. He disowns his son, and they are estranged once again.

The rest of the film works out the Cains’ relationship, even though they spend precious little screen time together, and Lucky Dubarry has to step in and plead the son’s case to his father during a prison visit. (In her role as Dubarry, Lamour does her own singing, too!) I wish the film had ended a little bit differently: The ending was a quick wrap-up that seemed to be tacked on at the last minute. But Johnny Apollo does have a lot to say about the strength of familial ties. Father and son go to great lengths, often causing great harm, to do what they think is best. If they had been honest with each other from the beginning, as Cain Jr. tells his father in their first conversation in the film, they might have avoided a lot of heartache, but then we wouldn’t have had a film noir or a film at all!

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Harper (1966)

February 23, 1966, release date
Directed by Jack Smight
Screenplay by William Goldman
Based on The Moving Target by Ross Macdonald
Music by Johnny Mandel
Edited by Stefan Arnsten
Cinematography by Conrad L. Hall

Paul Newman as Lew Harper
Lauren Bacall as Elaine Sampson
Julie Harris as Betty Fraley
Arthur Hill as Albert Graves
Janet Leigh as Susan Harper
Pamela Tiffin as Miranda Sampson
Robert Wagner as Allan Taggert
Robert Webber as Dwight Troy
Shelley Winters as Fay Estabrook
Harold Gould as Sheriff Spanner
Martin West as the deputy
Roy Jenson as Puddler, the bouncer at the Piano bar
Strother Martin as Claude, the priest at the Temple of the Clouds

Distributed by Warner Bros.
Produced by Warner Bros.

There’s a lot to like about Harper, not the least of which is Paul Newman in the starring role. He’s a lot of fun to watch, so much so that I also saw The Drowning Pool, in which he plays the same character in another story also based on a Ross Macdonald novel. It seems obvious—at least to me—that he enjoys his work and has a lot of fun doing it. In some respects, he reminds me of Lloyd Nolan in the Michael Shayne roles. The list of stars in supporting roles in Harper is impressive and adds to the fun.

The film starts with Lew Harper, a down-on-his-luck private investigator, beginning his day. The opening credits appear over his morning ritual. He is in bed ignoring an alarm clock and then finally turning it off. The camera pulls back to reveal a small, cramped one-room apartment. The television, on a mobile pushcart, is still on but with a test pattern from the 1960s. (Remember those from the earlier days of television?) Harper gets out of bed, turns off the television, pushes it out of the way, and opens the shade on one of his windows. He finds the sunlight so blinding that he doesn’t bother with the others. He reuses coffee grounds that he retrieves from a wastebasket to make some bad coffee. When he leaves his living quarters, we learn that he is residing in his office: The front door that shuts behind him is an office door showing the lettering of his name and business.

Harper drives off in a beat-up convertible in need of a paint job to meet with Elaine Sampson, who wants Harper to find her husband Ralph. The initial meeting between Harper and Sampson is a bit cryptic and mysterious. Elaine Sampson doesn’t much care about bringing her husband back; she just wants to make sure that he isn’t squandering his (their) money. Some of their conversation is amusing, and Lew Harper gets to show his cynical humor:
Elaine Sampson: “. . . Actually, I have no intention of divorcing him [her husband Ralph]. I only intend to outlive him. I only want to see him in his grave.” [short pause] “What a terrible thing to say.”
Lew Harper: “People in love will say anything.”

(This blog post about Harper contains some spoilers.)

Later in the film, Harper tracks Fay Estabrook, someone he wants to question about Ralph Sampson’s whereabouts. He finds her at the Bel-Air Hotel. Once again, Harper gets to show a bit of humor in the following exchange with the bartender in the hotel’s lounge:
Lew Harper: “Give me another one of those, will you?”
Bartender at the Bel-Air Hotel: “It’s two after six. We don’t serve domestic after six. Only imported.”
Harper: “Terrific.” [throws some bills on the bar] “Keep the change.”
Bartender: “There is no change.”
Harper: [looks up at the bartender] “Keep it anyway.”
Once he introduces himself to Fay Estabrook, Harper goes to great lengths to keep her attention long enough to get information from her, even go-go dancing with her when the band starts to play in the hotel lounge.

The story has so many elements of noir. In addition to Ralph Sampson’s disappearance, the film features murder, smuggling of illegal immigrants and narcotics, blackmail, torture, and a religious cult called Temple of the Clouds. Harper himself is something of a throwback to the detectives of the 1940s, a bit like Sam Spade, because he has his own peculiar code of ethics, which apply only to his business. For Harper, that means seeing an assignment to the bitter end. It doesn’t apply to his wife, however, who wants a divorce but is willing to consider reconciliation when Harper shows up on her doorstep looking for some carnal comfort. The next morning, when he leaves her stranded because he is a cad and because he insists on seeing the assignment through, she realizes that her decision to divorce Harper is the right one.

Some of the most interesting features of the film admittedly do not have much to do with noir. In addition to the occasional humor, the film uses Technicolor to its advantage. The color in Harper is not garish at all, which is sometimes true of other Technicolor films from the 1960s; rather, it is muted and subdued. At times, color fills the screen, making some shots feel cramped almost to the point of suffocation.

The details in the film that did start to grate on me were the running jokes about Fay Estabrook once being a beautiful starlet who got old and fat. Shelley Winters does a great job in the role of Estabrook, and these references about the character’s shortcomings make the film seem a little mean-spirited. And I suppose Harper doesn’t break any new ground. The main character is a struggling private investigator, looking for a big payoff and treating women badly, all in the pursuit of his own version of justice.

I still enjoyed the film. I found it intriguing that all the different elements seem like they have nothing to do with one another, but the plot eventually reveals that all of them, even the Temple of the Clouds, are interrelated. It’s one of those movies where paying attention to the details makes a big difference.

The DVD that I watched came with audio commentary by William Goldman, the screenwriter. I found his observations interesting and well worth a listen. He made the point that Paul Newman, in the title role, has to carry the film and does a great job. I couldn’t agree more. And it is a great story. Lew Harper finds more than one mystery to solve and survives them all.

I wondered if the music (“The Big Heist” by Henry Mancini) for the opening sequence of Harper was the same as the music used in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) for the scene in which Holly Golightly and Paul Varjak are deciding what to shoplift at a five and dime store in Manhattan. If you know, please leave a comment.