As we approach Memorial Day, I have chosen a Civil War movie for this month’s Monday Movie Review. Memorial Day, established in 1868, was originally called Decoration Day. The purpose, according to Major General John A. Logan, was to decorate Civil War graves “with the choicest flowers of springtime.” The practice of decorating American graves from all wars began after World War I.
The Battle (1911)
Directed by D. W. Griffith, The Battle is a short movie and probably considered a “two-reeler” in the moving picture jargon of the very early twentieth century. The film opens in 1861, with The Boy (Charles West), a young Union officer, at a dance with His Sweetheart (Blanche Sweet). The Boy lures His Sweetheart away for a private moment, but they are beckoned to return, and His Sweetheart leads The Boy back to the dance. The dance is still in progress when the officers attending the dance join a large formation of soldiers marching off to war. All are celebrated by the civilian populace.
Later, the battle ensues conveniently close to His Sweetheart’s home. At first contact with the enemy, The Boy is overcome by fear and flees to His Sweetheart’s abode to hide. She laughs at him for his cowardice, rebuffs him, and slaps him around. The Boy exits her house and sneaks back to his unit unnoticed.
But now, the Union force is running low on ammunition. The Boy is sent to obtain ammunition from another unit. He and an enlisted man head off through the wilderness but are detected by a Confederate patrol. They try to evade from the patrol—one is killed. Will the ammunition be delivered?
As would be expected of a 109-year-old film, the images are fuzzy in comparison to what is produced today. In this silent film, there are relatively few intertitles, and the piano accompaniment enhances the story line which is carried forward by acting and action. What is most impressive though, are the sheer number of extras and the volume of horses and military equipment used in this sixteen-minute film. D. W. Griffith would go in to direct the then (and still) controversial Birth of a Nation (1915), which included enormous battle scenes with hundreds of extras and vast amounts of military equipment.
Lionel Barrymore appears as a wagon-driver, though he is uncredited, in this his fourth movie appearance. One bearded, cigar-smoking character looks conspicuously like General Ulysses Grant. The Battle was filmed fifty years after the beginning of the Civil War. As a perspective on timeline, that is like a movie about Vietnam being made in 2015. You can view The Battle on the internet at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=it5sqltcxxo .
“Why don’t you quit cryin’ and get me some bourbon.” There is plenty of hard-boiled dialogue in The Asphalt Jungle—so much that, in other movies it would feel overdone to the point of being cliché. But, screenwriter Ben Maddow and writer/director John Huston weaved this rich, noir language into the fabric of the film so masterfully, that it is natural and unobtrusive.
Unobtrusive is a major characteristic of most elements in this classic film noir. There is a dearth of music, but its absence goes unnoticed. A dramatic orchestral introduction supersedes any dialogue, except for a police radio. When the main character, Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden), who has been evading the cops, enters a diner, the orchestra stops so we can hear a radio playing inside. The radio serves a purpose and it is not for entertainment. Near the end of the film, juke box music precedes another orchestral piece. For the rest of the film, there is no orchestra following people around to punctuate their activities and emotions, just as it is absent in real life. The film opens to a gloomy day in a gritty part of a mid-west city. Prominently featured are the geometric lines of buildings, streets and alleys and camera angles that are typical in film noir. But, the lighting is natural, as in real life, rather than what we normally find, and expect, in a noir offering—at least at first. As danger approaches, and then envelopes a host of characters, low lighting and heavy shadows appear as the tension rises. However, the stylistic lighting is understated in its volume and conspicuousness, because it inhabits the film rather than accentuates it. As with the other elements of The Asphalt Jungle, the acting is also natural and understated. Dix Handley says not one word for the first twelve minutes of the film, yet he is the focus of the opening scenes. A small time criminal and “hooligan”, Dix is recruited as muscle for a caper, based on the stamp of approval from of all people, Gus Minissi (James Whitmore), the hunchbacked owner of the diner. If the other characters were presented on a list, it might be easy to discount them as stereotypical crime story types—among them, a corrupt cop in cahoots with a bookie, a lovestruck taxi-dancer, a safe-cracker and a no-nonsense police commissioner. But in The Asphalt Jungle, they are as authentic, flawed, redeeming and real as people you encounter in daily life. Even the Marilyn Monroe that we see is relatively subdued. In The Asphalt Jungle, Doc Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe), a well-known and respected career criminal, has planned a noteworthy heist while in prison. Upon his release from “behind the walls”, he seeks a crew to pull it off and assembles a team that includes Dix Handley and the diner proprietor, Gus Minissi. John Huston has expertly blended plot, character, visual and audio elements to draw the audience into the caper. As the story and the heist unfolds, you may find yourself rooting for Doc Riedenschneider’s team, even though they are the bad guys—or are they?
If you are a fan of film noir, The Asphalt Jungle is a must-see. And if you are not, this film is still a must-see. Deemed historic, culturally, or aesthetically significant, The Asphalt Jungle was inducted into the Library of Congress National Film Registry in 2008.
Karl Hinkamp - Short Biography of Reviewer
Guest blogger Karl Hinkamp was a Career Enlisted Aviator (CEA) in the United States Air Force, followed by work in the cargo airline industry. He has worked all over the globe, and lived in four countries in Europe and the Far East. His primary collegiate background is in history and visual media. He has worked on several film projects as well as producing and directing his own short films, including a documentary. We are happy to have him as our guest reviewer.
The Las Vegas Story (1952)
“Moonlight, sagebrush, my wife with a stranger.” Lloyd Rollins’s (Vincent Price) wry announcement when he finds his wife Linda (Jane Russell) with police Lieutenant Dave Andrews (Victor Mature) is a fitting description of one of the story lines in RKO’s The Las Vegas Story; but there is more. A Time Outwebsite film review declared the film had “aeroplanes, brunettes, breasts and disenchanted heroes,” all the elements appealing to Howard Hughes, the RKO studio owner. But there is still more—embezzlement, a necklace and a dead body.
The characters are indeed disenchanted, and most have something to hide. It is clear from the start that Mrs. Rollins wants to steer clear of a last-minute layover in Las Vegas insisted upon by her husband, Lloyd. It is unclear, however, if she actually loves, or even likes her husband. Lloyd and Linda disembark from the train—followed by a slick looking fellow. After checking in at The Fabulous hotel-casino [an obvious stand in for The Flamingo], Linda, with permission if not encouragement from Lloyd, takes a cab to The Last Chance casino and her past. Linda had been a singer at The Last Chance. She and Dave Andrews had been involved. Their reunion is rocky.
Lloyd, ever evasive about his business dealings, borrows gambling money on credit at The Fabulous, then borrows more against his wife’s $150,000 diamond necklace at The Last Chance. He tries to win his way back to solvency, but needs more cash. The slick fellow, Tom Hubler (Brad Dexter), repeatedly inserts himself at the most inconvenient moments. After the despised owner of The Last Chance is found dead, Lloyd is booked for murder. The tension rises rapidly resulting in an action sequence that includes an impressive helicopter versus car duel—possibly the first in a feature film.
Many, if not most people, classify The Las Vegas Story as film noir, but I disagree—it is a drama/crime picture, but not film noir. For example, a narrator opens the film, but in this case the narrator is a piano player named Happy (Hoagy Carmichael), instead of a private detective or a cynical victim. There are some hard-boiled quips by Dave Andrews and Linda Rollins, but the overall tone of the dialogue is pithy and jammed with sub-text, especially Lloyd Rollins’s lines as delivered by Vincent Price. At times, the film borders on the musical. Happy tickles the piano keys as punctuation and plays three full songs, Linda singing on two of them. Drama, crime, songs, action and a mostly happy ending—this is what The Las Vegas Storygives us, but not the dark mood of film noir. This shouldn’t be a surprise, though. Director Robert Stevenson made only a handful of noir films, but directed a long list of dramas, comedies and musicals, including Mary Poppins.
The Las Vegas Story also provides bonuses for today’s audience. For those with an interest in old Las Vegas, there are scenes that treat the viewer to businesses, casinos and classic neon signs of yesteryear. The action and flying scenes show surrounding Clark County and the former Naval Air Station, Mojave, which is now the Mojave Air and Space Port. There is much to miss if you pass on this movie—old Vegas, drama, action and a superb performance by Vincent Price.
Karl Hinkamp served in the United States Air Force and worked in the cargo airline industry before studying history and visual media. He has worked on several film projects as well as producing and directing his own short films, including a documentary. We are happy to have him as our guest reviewer.
Movie Review by Karl Hinkamp
Movie Review by Karl Hinkamp
Movie Review by Karl Hinkamp