The Bad and the Beautiful

Don’t worry. Some of the best movies are made by people working together who hate each other’s guts.

Seeing as Kirk Douglas celebrates his 100th birthday today I wanted to make a point of featuring one of his movies to mark the occasion. With one of the great movie stars I figured it would be appropriate to choose a movie about movie-making, not only one of the best of that little sub-genre but one of the best Hollywood has produced. The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) is a carefully crafted piece of work, episodic in structure but with an organic, flowing quality that ensures scenes and sequences segue naturally to provide us with a portrait of a man both shaping and simultaneously being shaped by the cinema. Sounds like a perfect role for Douglas, doesn’t it?

If one wanted to be glib, it could be said the film is the story of a phone call. In fact, it  starts with  a series of telephone calls, three to be exact and each one is rejected with something approaching relish. Three calls to three Hollywood figures, all of whom take pleasure in telling the party at the other end of the line to take a running jump. That guy at the other end of the line is Jonathan Shields (Kirk Douglas), once a big-time producer but now reduced to hearing casual brush-offs across a long distance line. So we’ve got a good hook right here, you do tend to wonder why a man should be summarily dismissed in this fashion. Curiosity is such that we want to know what a man like this has to say, and by the end of the picture those on the screen clearly share this feeling too. In the meantime, we have the build-up, where studio executive Harry Pebbel (Walter Pidgeon) tries to persuade the director (Barry Sullivan), the leading lady (Lana Turner) & the writer (Dick Powell) to at least take Shields’ call and give their collective answer on whether or not they are prepared to work with him one more time.  So, this trio gathers in Pebbel’s office while he, through flashbacks, recalls the way their lives and careers became entwined with that of Shields, and why they feel the way they do about him.

 Hollywood thrives on narcissism, it loves to look at itself and can’t resist encouraging us to look at it while it indulges in this introspection. You could say that’s indicative of the all-consuming vanity of the movies, the conviction that audiences will be fascinated by the chance to peek behind the cameras and glimpse the artists and technicians at work and play, that there’s no drama as compelling as the everyday lives of the filmmakers themselves. And I guess they’re right, there’s always been a market for celebrity watching and this has shown no sign of abating any time soon, if anything it’s more intense than ever these days. We sometimes hear about stripping away the glamor but the classic Hollywood exposés didn’t really do that, sure they showed the less savory side of the business and those involved in it but even so they couldn’t help making it look good. As the title of this film suggests, there are some rotten people on screen but they and the world they inhabit remain beautiful and captivating. The Oscar-winning Charles Schnee screenplay focuses on the ruthlessness, the lack of scruples of Shields, the way he’s consistently used and manipulated his colleagues to attain success. Yet, for all that, despite the duplicity and the betrayals, the milieu holds our attention and we’re never allowed to forget that Shields brought success even to those he hurt.

Director Vincente Minnelli clearly enjoyed turning the cameras around since he, and Douglas, would return to the theme 10 years later when they made Two Weeks in Another Town, again scripted by Schnee and produced by John Houseman. He’s always going to be best remembered for his musicals but it has to be said he had a marvelous talent for well-judged melodrama – this movie, the aforementioned Two Weeks in Another Town, Home from the Hill and the dazzling Some Came Running are significant artistic achievements and add up to a highly impressive mini-filmography by themselves.

 Kirk Douglas was second billed in The Bad and the Beautiful behind Lana Turner and earned himself his second Oscar nomination. He didn’t win (losing out to Gary Cooper in High Noon that year) and claims in his autobiography to have been surprised by the nomination, believing his roles in Wyler’s Detective Story or Wilder’s Ace in the Hole were more worthy of such an honor. I think this says something about the way Douglas views his own work, seeming to prefer the more driven and less sympathetic parts. While there is much to dislike about Jonathan Shields, it’s said that Minnelli worked on Douglas to bring out the nicer side of the character and tone down the more explosive and less likeable aspects. Which is not to say he doesn’t explode at any point – he does have two fairly intense, in-your-face scenes opposite Lana Turner, but it probably wouldn’t feel like a proper Kirk Douglas film if they weren’t there.

Lana Turner wasn’t an actress who ever impressed me all that much, meaning she was always someone you noticed in a movie (her looks kind of demand that) but whose roles were frequently less memorable, with a few notable exceptions. I think The Bad and the Beautiful ranks as one such exception. The fact she was playing an insecure, alcohol dependent star was an advantage as it required a degree of fragility and vulnerability that Turner was able to convey successfully. In terms of awards though, the big winner among the actresses was Gloria Grahame, who scooped the Oscar for best supporting actress. Grahame was a terrific screen presence, sexy and credible in just about everything I’ve seen her in. Her part in this film is a small one, confined to the section with Dick Powell, yet she doesn’t waste a moment of the time she has. Powell was fine too as her cynical husband, adding an intellectual spin to the kind of insolence he had down pat by this stage. I generally like Barry Sullivan, he was one of those guys who could be a hero or villain (or even something in between) quite effortlessly. He was good enough as the director who sees his idea stolen but it’s an undemanding and perhaps a bit of a thankless part under the circumstances. And there’s plenty of depth in the cast – Walter Pidgeon, Leo G Carroll, Gilbert Roland and Paul Stewart all make contributions.

 This is a movie where some people like to see if they can pick which cinema personality each of the main characters was based on – Douglas’ lead appears to be a composite of sorts with the characteristics of at least two producers (one of whom is a cult favorite) on view. Of the others, some are pretty obvious (Lana Turner’s part, for example) while others (like Barry Sullivan) are less so. I won’t go naming any names here – it might spoil a little bit of the fun for some and anyway the curious can easily search online for clues/opinions. That’s just trivial stuff though, the movie provides a masterclass in professionalism and polish where there’s next to nothing to fault in the direction, writing, photography (another Oscar there for Robert Surtees) and acting. The Bad and the Beautiful is an extremely smooth and classy piece of filmmaking, Hollywood writing its own lore and having a good time doing it. The film is easy to find and looks good too, at least my old Warner Brothers DVD does. Viewed for the first or the fiftieth time, it still satisfies.

It’s a rare thing to be able to post something on the occasion of the 100th birthday of a living screen legend, a bona fide star of the Golden Age of cinema, and it gives me a real kick to be able to do so on the day Kirk Douglas hits three figures – congratulations to him and may he see many more.

The Tall Target

I’ve mentioned before that I’m a big fan of thrillers taking place in isolated or self-contained settings such as old dark houses, ships or trains. The restrictions necessarily imposed are a marvellously effective way of maintaining focus, both for the filmmakers and the viewers. It also makes for effortless suspense as the options open to the characters involved are narrowed down, and a tense, claustrophobic atmosphere is easily achieved. The bulk of the action in The Tall Target (1951) takes place on a train, and the movie uses this cramped stage to enact its dramatic events to great advantage. What makes the film all the more impressive in my view is the fact that there’s not much of a mystery to solve. Nevertheless, what unfolds on the screen holds the attention from beginning to end.

The story is one inspired by a real event – a plot to assassinate Lincoln before his inauguration coud take place. It’s 1861 and the president-elect is due to make a short stop in Baltimore, Maryland before heading on to Washington to take power. Naturally, these are troubled times and talk of secession and war is on everyone’s lips. With Lincoln’s elevation to the highest office in the land it’s only a matter of time before the South declares independence, and war has to be the next logical step. As such, there are those with a vested interest in seeing that the man never gets to Washington. John Kennedy (Dick Powell) is a detective who feels sure he’s stumbled onto a plot to assassinate Lincoln as soon as he sets foot in Baltimore. The problem is no-one wants to believe him, and his chief even goes so far as to threaten him with dismissal if he insists on pursuing the matter. Unfazed by this stonewalling, Kennedy turns in his badge and hotfoots it to the station. His intention: to board the Baltimore train, foil the conspiracy and discover the identity of the ringleaders. However, he immediately hits a snag; his contact, along with his ticket, has disappeared and someone else is claiming to be the real John Kennedy. A quick inspection reveals that the detective’s friend has been murdered, but there’s no way he can prove this. Such an inauspicious start would give most men pause for thought, but Kennedy is nothing if not resourceful and he turns to an acquaintance to back him up. Colonel Jeffers (Adolphe Menjou) is the one man aboard the train who can identify Kennedy and vouch for his credentials. So the soldier and the policeman form an uneasy alliance – Jeffers is no lover of Lincoln’s politics – in the hope of flushing out the would-be killers. The list of suspects is a relatively short one: Jeffers himself, a blowhard industrialist (Will Wright), a young brother and sister apparently travelling on to Georgia (Marshall Thompson & Paula Raymond). Although the villain’s identity is revealed around the halfway mark, I’m not going to spoil things for any people who have yet to see the movie. Anyway, that’s not the point of the film. The greatest anxiety is generated by the doubts over whether Kennedy can prevent the assassination from taking place. Now anyone with even the most rudimentary knowledge of American history knows the answer to that one, but where the script really triumphs is in its ability to leave you hanging on the edge of your seat in spite of this.

Although Anthony Mann had already embarked on his western phase by this time, The Tall Target harks back to the tight little noir thrillers with which he had made his name throughout the preceding decade. Instead of the wide open spaces of the frontier where the drama was played out against a harsh landscape, this film is a closed affair that was shot on sound stages. The actors don’t have a lot of room to move around freely, and that’s entirely fitting for a story where the characters’ capacity for manoeuvre in any sense is severely limited. There are also a lot of typically disconcerting low-angle shots and close-ups of strained faces. Mann seemed to be blessed with good cameramen through most of his career, and Paul Vogel did some excellent work on this movie. Vogel had already shot a number of noir pictures – Lady in the Lake, High Wall, Dial 1119 – and brought that sensibility to The Tall Target. This couldn’t be termed a film noir yet it has the look and feel of one. What we get is primarily a suspense thriller, and it’s a combination of good writing and characterization, as well as atmospheric direction and photography, that ensures it remains gripping. When Kennedy finds himself facing the twin dilemma of being pursued by both the assassins and the suspicious authorities, Mann gets a lot of mileage from such a simple setup as the search for a berth to hide in. Time and again he draws the maximum degree of tension from situations that the viewer knows deep down are going to be resolved favourably. It’s no mean feat to deftly turn potentially trite circumstances into something that has you biting your nails – in fact, I’d say it’s one of the factors which sets the artist apart from the mere journeyman.

Compared to the kind of stuff he’d been doing before, Dick Powell took his career in a completely different direction when he was cast in the role of Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet in 1944. I like the way he worked on the tough guy persona in the following years and carved out a little niche for himself. The Tall Target was one of his last cinema roles before he turned his attention to directing and TV, and he handles the part just fine. Playing a professional detective meant he had to do a bit of a balancing act, conveying the increasing desperation of a lone cop in a race against time yet still keeping just the right side of panic. He got some excellent support from Adolphe Menjou as the newly commissioned colonel. He adds some of his trademark polish to his performance and has the kind of ambiguous quality that helps round out his character. Will Geer brought a lightness of touch to the part of the frustrated conductor, and it’s a welcome contribution amid all the severity. I was also impressed by the sensitivity that Ruby Dee displayed as the slave girl torn between loyalty to her owners and a natural sympathy for Powell’s cause. Paula Raymond and Marshall Thompson were less effective, the former having the misfortune of being handed pretty much a nothing role, while the latter just seemed wooden. To be honest, I’ve never been all that taken with Thompson in anything I’ve seen him in; he always appeared too stiff and repressed for my liking. The cast was filled out with a whole host of character actors who should be familiar faces, including Florence Bates, Will Wright and Percy Helton.

To the best of my knowledge, the only DVD of The Tall Target is the MOD disc available via the Warner Archives. The transfer on that disc isn’t bad; it doesn’t appear to have had any work done on it but it’s in reasonable condition. There are the usual cue blips and the like to be found on unrestored movies though the image is satisfactorily sharp. With MOD discs you generally don’t get any extra features, but this one has the trailer included. I’m a great admirer of Anthony Mann’s work and The Tall Target is a good, solid effort. It has to be said that it’s neither as famous nor as complex as his best films. The lack of complexity shouldn’t be taken as any criticism of Mann, that’s just the way the characters are written, but it may partly explain why it’s not better known. Anyway, it’s a finely crafted little thriller that moves at a good pace and offers plenty of entertainment value. I have no complaints.

Station West

What an oddball little western this is. It opens with Dick Powell’s stranger riding into town and checking into a hotel run by a guitar strumming (and uncredited) Burl Ives who just happens to be singing about a stranger riding into town. At this point we’re not seeing any western conventions being stretched. However, as soon as this slight figure crosses the street, enters the saloon and starts to throw out the kind of wise cracks and casual insults that would surely earn anyone the ass-kicking of a lifetime, we can be sure this is no average oater.

Powell is not really your average western hero, and here this is explained by his being an undercover army intelligence officer. Mind you, I’m not suggesting that Powell isn’t tough enough to be a westerner (a brutal and well photographed brawl with Guinn “Big Boy” Williams leaves that in no doubt) but he doesn’t sound like a cowboy. In truth, this is a lot of what makes the picture so entertaining. If you are familiar with Powell’s role in Murder, My Sweet then this film will conjure images of Marlowe riding the range.

Another thing the movie has going for it is the cast. In addition to Powell we have Jane Greer, playing another dangerous vamp, who seems to own the whole town. Agnes Moorehead is Powell’s contact with the army, and Raymond Burr is the town lawyer with a gambling problem – all wide-eyed weakness and far removed from Perry Mason. The aforementioned Williams doesn’t have much to do here except look mean, but (as with Ward Bond) I find something reassuring about the presence of his familiar mug in a film. Burl Ives’ small role as “either the town poet or the village idiot” is also most welcome.

Burl Ives & Dick Powell

The plot revolves around hijacked gold shipments but, in a Chandleresque way, it doesn’t seem so important. The real joy here is the fusion of hard-boiled noir dialogue with western locales. If you are seeking an authentic and gritty representation of the Old West, then look elsewhere. On the other hand, if you are a fan of westerns and noir and want to see the best elements of both working in tandem, then Station West is worth a look.

The film is available on DVD from France in a transfer that is just adequate. It’s an RKO picture so it may get a R1 release from Warner one day, although the company seems to show little appetite for westerns right now.