The Case of the Black Cat

Talkie of the Week: The Case of the Black Cat

USA 1936, 66 minutes, black & white, Warner Bros. Director: William C. McGann, Written by F. Hugh Herbert, Based on The Case of the Caretaker’s Cat by Erle Stanley Gardner. Cast: Ricardo Cortez, June Travis, Jane Bryan, Craig Reynolds, Carlyle Moore Jr., Gordon Elliot, Nedda Harrigan, Garry Owen, Harry Davenport, George Rosener, Gordon Hart, Clarence Wilson, Guy Usher, Lottie Williams and Harry Hayden.

Plot summary: When Peter Laxter calls Perry Mason to change his will in order to test the loyalty of his granddaughter’s fiancé, his actions result in a series of sudden deaths the prosecution investigates as murders.

Review: Following four silver screenTCOT Black Catadaptations with Warren William starring as Perry Mason, Warner Brothers took another shot at success in 1936 by releasing The Case of the Black Cat based on Erle Stanley Gardner’s seventh whodunit, The Case of the Caretaker’s Cat. Introducing Ricardo Cortez as the famous attorney-at-law and June Travis as his irreplaceable Della Street, that new production did not follow up on previously disappointing attempts of turning Mason into a Nick Charles but rather tried to soak up the essence of Gardner’s original novel. Featuring Garry Owen as private eye Paul Drake, an important asset to Mason’s law practice, and Guy Usher as district attorney Hamilton Burger, The Case of the Black Cat was suspenseful and noir right from the start. What the film lacked, however, was that kind of enticing chemistry between the story’s main characters, an ingredient Raymond Burr, Barbara Hale, Bill Hopper (as well as William Talman and Ray Collins) would so easily create on the small screen two decades later.

Although hard to compare to the smashing TV show of the 1950s and 60s, this adaptation from 1936 already took a step into the right direction. Regardless of his excellent performance skills and gentlemanly quality, Warren William did not get to leave a lasting mark as Perry Mason and unfortunately, nor did Ricardo Cortez with his one-time chance at proving himself. June Travis, as the fourth actress to breathe life into Mason’s skillful girl Friday, also didn’t make a big enough difference to win the hearts of Gardner’s fans. Just like her predecessors, she was pretty and useful but never as distinctive as the character in the original books.

In general, The Case of the Black Cat offered a calmer version of Gardner’s crafty lawyer, especially when compared to the screwball-induced The Case of the Lucky Legs and The Velvet Claws, the improved take on the novels still did not stand out enough, however, to attract a larger audience. Today, The Case of the Black Cat is a great little film for anyone who loves Perry Mason. Although for most, Raymond Burr will always be the perfect Perry and Barbara Hale his unrivaled Della, this film is a great example of how Hollywood has always tried to tell stories the audience has already embraced. It is also a treat for anyone who is enamored with the 1930s, the slang, movies and fashion of those troubled days.

Available on the Perry Mason Mysteries DVD boxset.

Please Murder Me

Talkie of the Week: Please Murder Me

USA 1956, 78 minutes, black & white, Distributors Corporation America. Director: Peter Godfrey, Written by David T. Chantler, Ewald André Dupont, Donald Hyde and Al C. Ward. Cast: Raymond Burr, Angela Lansbury, Dick Foran, John Dehner, Lamont Johnson, Robert Griffin, Denver Pyle, Alex Sharp, Lee Miller, Russell Thorson

Plot summary: Attorney Craig Carlson falls in love with his best friend’s wife and asks for his approval to marry her. When his friend is found dead a week later, his widow is accused of murder and Craig defends her only to discover her darkest secrets.

Review: In Please Murder Me, Raymond Burr was cast as attorney Craig Carlson who falls in love with Myra Leeds, his best friend’s wife, played by Angela Lansbury. That was in 1956, the same year he started working on the Perry Mason pilot before she show went on the air on CBS to be a great success from 1957 – 66. The movie was Raymond Burr’s test run as a successful lawyer and a way for him to prove his leading qualities. A supporting actor since 1946, he finally got the break he deserved and made the best of it. Always immersing himself in his parts, Raymond Burr brought a lot of ruthless energy to his performance and built up a beautiful chemistry with his female co-star.

Angela Lansbury, a Hollywood veteran since 1944, brought an eerie quality to her performance, creating suspense and sizzling moments with Raymond Burr. As character actors, they both took the plot and made the best of it by adding depth to this emotional drama.

As a “typical” film noir, it is hard to summarize the plot without giving too much away. It is safe to say however that this film won’t leave you untouched. Thanks to the profound talent and expressiveness of its two leads, the film takes the step from diverting to excellent. Angela Lansbury and Raymond Burr aside, Please Murder Me was blessed with a decent cast of actors who breathed life into their characters and made the story believable. The perfect film for this moody April weather and a rainy Sunday night.

Available on DVD and online.

The Third Man

Talkie of the Week: The Third Man

UK 1949, 104 minutes, black & white, British Lion Films. Director: Carol Reed, Written by Graham Greene, Based on a story by Graham Greene, Music by Anton Karas. Cast: Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli, Orson Welles, Trevor Howard

Plot summary: Western pulp writer Holly Martins has arrived in Vienna to meet up with his friend Harry Lime who was found dead shortly before his arrival. By trying to find out what happened to Harry, Martins is being sucked into a spiral of lies and deceit in a city that’s divided by mayhem and the emerging cold war.

Review: Who doesn’t know it, the famous score from The Third Man written and played by Anton Karas on his zither?! A musical theme that’s both entertaining and haunting. One of those famous songs that will never leave you after you’ve seen the movie, after the music drew you deep into the plot and followed you all the way through, from beginning to end. It’s the kind of theme that adds suspense to a story that’s already thrilling. It supports a brilliant cast of actors who know better than only to entertain. They leave us in the dark about their characters, their motivation and fate like they only did in film noir when a melancholy end was still enticing and a happy end not a necessity.

I suppose it would be interesting to watch The Third Man without its score. I must admit I’ve never tried to divide the heart from the soul, because, after all, isn’t that what a good score is all about?! It breathes life into a film to make it make it work beyond the pictures and the words. To make it memorable. I feel that’s how it is with most great films – they have that lasting effect on you because every detail was carefully composed: the cast of actors, the storyline, cinematography and then the music. Together they create a mood, a look, something you will take with you and remember. And in the case of The Third Man, it all starts when that zither starts to play and the credits begin. You are being sucked into the story like Holly Martins is sucked into post-war Vienna and the untimely demise of his friend.

We get a glimpse of antebellum Europe, of its history and the people who have survived murder and mayhem, who are tired of questions and betrayal. We meet people who are adapting to their new situation, who have learned to overcome a war and want to forget. We also meet our American hero who doesn’t fit in. Who, like us, doesn’t belong into this world and is trying to understand it. Who is fascinated by a city in a state of division, who is unwilling to accept the boundaries of that reality.

The Third Man will surprise you in many ways. It is clever, exciting and well played. There is also something about the movie I cannot explain. It’s one of those classics people will recommend to you and you may find yourself reluctant to see the reasons for all the praise. All I can say is this: give The Third Man a chance and have a look at it from a fresh, untainted perspective and you may find a gem you keep whistling the score of all day.

Available on DVD and Netflix. The 3rd Man trailer

The Clay Pigeon

Talkie of the Week: The Clay Pigeon

USA 1949, 63 minutes, b&w, RKO Radio Pictures. Director: Richard Fleischer, Screenplay: Carl Foreman. Cast: Bill Williams, Barbara Hale, Richard Quine, Richard Loo

Plot summary: When Jim Fletcher wakes up at a Navy hospital in California, he cannot recall what’s happened to him but he is certain that he is not the traitor the doctors say he is. In order to prove his innocence, he takes flight and finds, despite a rocky introduction, help from his war buddy’s widow Martha Gregory.

Review: The Clay Pigeon is a post-war film noir, tightly knit and narrated in a good pace with beautiful shots to underline the suspense. Based on a true story, the film is not one of its kind in post-war America, but it has the right mixture of conspiracy, adventure, mystery and romance to stand up to the variety of star-studded competition.

Bill Williams stars as Jim Fletcher who wakes up in San Diego and is haunted by a past he cannot fully remember. His portrayal is solid and good-natured. He knows to sell the story of a good sailor who’s wronged and rather fights than face court martial for something he hasn’t done. He is supported by his wife of then three years,Barbara Hale, whose acting complements her husband’s in the best of ways. Her Martha Gregory is a joy to watch from her first encounter with her on-screen spouse’s supposed murder, to the fight she puts on as a hostage, up to the turning point when Martha realizes that Jim may indeed be innocent.

It’s not surprising to find a sparkle of chemistry helping them along, but home field advantage or not, the couple makes the story work. And sixty-three minutes, although well timed for the plot, seems way too short for them to leave us towards the end. Adding to that sentiment is the fabulous cast of supporting actors, including Richards Quine and Loo. The often narrow setting of the film helps the film to run along, leaving the audience panting with our protagonist, fearing for his life.

All in all, The Clay Pigeon is a small but clever film with an eye candy cast of often falsely categorized B actors. Barbara Hale and husband Bill Williams have starred in a number of movies together, always adding spice, quality and heart to sometimes meager stories. This film may not have made it in the Best Picture category of the Academy, but it sure is a gem that’s worth watching on more than one cold Sunday night.

The Clay Pigeon sample scene

The Houston Story

Talkie of the Week: The Houston Story

USA 1956, 79 minutes, black & white, Columbia Pictures. Director: William Castle, Producer: Sam Katzman, Written by: Robert E. Kent as James B. Gordon. Cast: Gene Barry, Barbara Hale, Edward Arnold, Paul Richards, Jeanne Cooper, Frank Jenks, John Zaremba, Chris Alcaide, Jack Littlefield, Paul Levitt, Fred Krone, Pete Kellett

Plot summary: Frank Duncan plays a game of double-cross with Houston’s syndicate, trying to steal one of the mobster’s girl while getting rich  on black gold.

Review: The Houston Story is a classic film noir with all its sultry elements of crime, drama and suspense. Gene Barry plays Frank Duncan, an oil field worker who is trying to outsmart the local mob by getting to their money in order to get rich himself. His scheme is dangerous and reckless, especially when he starts to play with fire and gets involved with one of the mobster’s girlfriend, a lusciously enigmatic night club entertainer. As convoluted as the plot, the characters’ fate is inevitable yet inscrutable in a gripping way.

Gene Barry gives an absorbing performance as Frank Duncan who is trying to keep ahead in his own bold venture. He is surrounded by a stunning cast of supporting actors, who tease out the ruthless morale of their characters to a tee.

Barbara Hale plays Zoe Crane, the female lead who is full of allure. An enigma of her own making, elegantly walking a tightrope to survive the dangerous game she finds herself entrapped in. It is not clear if she’s a victim or a player, if she tries to escape or trick the men surrounding her. She is positively mysterious, a captivating beauty with her cropped platinum curls, a seductress whose glittering introduction merges class with sin. Her enticing wardrobe and memorable performance of “Put the Blame on Mame” (originally introduced in Rita Hayworth’s famous film Gilda in 1946) set the tone for the entire movie and beautifully tie in with Zoe Crane’s fatal attraction, her doom.

All in all, The Houston Story is the kind of film you cannot watch and iron to. It is fast and keeps its audience on its toes, wondering who will survive this mess of greed and violence. It is beautifully shot with a fantastic cast of actors, a real gem you may find yourself returning to over and over again.

Sample clip from The Houston Story one: Zoe Crane sings “Put the Blame on Mame”

Sample clip from The Houston Story two: Duncan meets Zoe

Available on VHS and DVD. The Houston Story trailer

The Window

Talkie of the Week: The Window

USA 1949, 73 minutes, black & white, An RKO Radio Picture. Director: Ted Tetzlaff, Screenplay by: Mel Dinelli, Based on the story The Boy Cried Murder by Cornell Woolrich. Cast: Barbara Hale, Bobby Driscoll, Arthur Kennedy, Paul Stewart, Ruth Roman

Plot summary: 9-year-old Tommy has a vivid imagination. Vivid enough to get him into trouble with his family. When he witnesses a murder late one night, his parents don’t believe him. He has told too many lies. The police does not believe him either, after all he’s just a boy who is infamous for stretching the truth. So Tommy is left with the murderers who know he has witnessed their crime. They don’t want to rely on Tommy’s incredibility and try to hush him for good.

Review: The Window is a little known film noir for which Bobby Driscol earned an honorary Academy Award for his portrayal of a distressed Tommy. Apart from the young protagonist, the rest of the cast gives convincing and sometimes stellar performances as Tommy adversaries.

Tommy’s parents, Barbara Hale and Arthur Kennedy, create a believable setting for the boys nature and the trouble he has gotten himself or them into in the past. Their reaction, their credibility about the hardship of raising a family in New York’s Lower East Side – all of these elements add to the crucial element of suspense. Tommy is not a perfect child. His persistence, his simple-mindedness make him appear annoying at times. It is apparent why his parents don’t believe him. But they love him nonetheless. And so does the audience when he runs for his life while he learns the lesson never to cry wolf again.

Side note: The movie was shot in 1947 but not released before August 1949.

Available on DVD and VHS.

Personal note: This gem is one of many I came across because of the lovely Barbara Hale. You will find her work presented here on a frequent basis.