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Thank You, TCM

Recently a friend dropped by with a bunch of movies that are currently unavailable for rent or purchase on DVD. All of them had recently run on Turner Classics. All are worth a look.

Though there are many pay cable channels showing movies uninterrupted by commercials, they usually put up films from the 80s forward. Few older films are shown, and fewer black-and-whites. If you want to see these types of pictures, commercially uninterrupted, you go to TCM, on basic cable. I am a longtime, loyal fan.

So was Pete Pelecanos, my father. In his youth he was the spitting image of the actor Guy Madison and had the quiet-strength temperament of a Glenn Ford. After a debilitating stroke in 1998, he filled his days watching TCM around the clock. Crime pictures, WWII films, screwball comedies, and Westerns were his favorites. Watching these films allowed my dad to go back in time, from his boyhood in a Chinatown walk-up, to his combat experience as a Marine in the Pacific, to the days he courted my mother in Washington, to the early years of his marriage, when he raised his family and operated his diner, The Jefferson Coffee Shop, at 1225 19th St., N.W.

God bless you, pop. And thank you, TCM.

Here are my notes on the films:

The Locket, directed by John Brahm (1946)

On his wedding day, a young man (Gene Raymond) finds out the awful truth about his bride-to-be, Nancy (Laraine Day), a kleptomaniac with a locket buried deep in her psyche and her past. Brian Aherne and Robert Mitchum play the former husbands who tell the tale in the film’s celebrated flashback-within-a-flashback-within-a-flashback structure. Sounds overly complicated but it’s not, and actually the device serves the mystery aspect of the plot via the vehicle of point-of-view. The Locket came out a time when armchair Freudianism was the Hollywood rage in pictures like The Snake Pit and Spellbound, and Hitchcock himself would mine this territory again, almost twenty years later, in Marnie. Day is attractive and creepy, and Aherne does his stiff-upper-lip bit to good effect. Robert Mitchum would not be my first choice to play a sensitive artist (“I wanted to analyze my feelings,” he says, in the requisite voiceover, and I had to smile), but the sleepwalking big man pulls it off well. Also of note is a remarkable young actress, Sharyn Moffett, heartbreaking as the ten-year old Nancy. Brahm (The Lodger) really turns it on in the last ten minutes, with match dissolves, a music-box theme, and a cinematic crazy house of sound and image as Nancy takes her fever-dream walk down the wedding aisle. This picture would have scared the hell out of me if I had seen it when I was a kid. It entertained me wildly as a man. An RKO Radio Pictures release. Music by Roy Webb.

Colorado Territory, directed by Raoul Walsh (1949)

As has been noted elsewhere, this is a Western remake of Walsh’s own High Sierra, a well-known gangster picture starring Humphrey Bogart and Ida Lupino. Here, the outlaw Wes McQueen and his lover Colorado are played by Joel McCrea and Virginia Mayo. This is a richer film than High Sierra, chiefly due to the screenplay co-written by John Twist, one of the most unheralded writers of Western films. The dialogue in Colorado is creative, at times poetic, and Walsh’s presentation and use of landscape in telling the story is notable. John Archer and James Mitchell deliver offbeat performances as Reno and Duke, McQueen’s unsavory accomplices. Natural cowboy McCrea is restrained and shows inner turmoil as the misunderstood, wanted gunman, and Mayo smolders as his “half breed” squeeze who comes on like Bonnie Parker in the downbeat, surprisingly brutal finale.

Desperate, directed by Anthony Mann (1947)

Bare bones RKO crime quickie from Mann in his pre-John Alton collaboration period, using cinematographer George E. Diskant (They Live by Night) for this outing. Army vet Steve Randall (bland everyman Steve Brodie) and his wife flee the city for the country after Randall unwittingly gets involved in a illegal trucking haul that results in the death of a police officer. Randall is pursued by Walt Radak (Raymond Burr) and his gang of hoods, along with a dogged cop, Ferrari, played by Jason Robards (Sr., and very good). The star of this is the menacing Burr, who made a meal of these types of psycho heavies before he took the career-defining role of Perry Mason on television. His eyes are empty and his shoulders fill the frame. Includes a stylized bit with a swinging lamp while Burr’s boys beat the shit out of Brodie, and a suitably noir climatic shootout set in a twisting stairwell. Not quite a classic, but you could do worse with your next free 73 minutes.

The Bribe, directed by Robert Z. Leonard (1949)

A Federal agent (Robert Taylor) goes down to a Central American island to break up a black market ring selling surplus war supplies, where he falls for a married cantina singer (Ava Gardener) who may or may not be involved in the criminal enterprise. Not really a film noir, this is more of a romantic thriller trying to catch the love triangle/intrigue vibe of a Casablanca. The MGM production values are polished veering towards slick, and the Miklos Rozsa score is front and center in the mix. The studio softened the infidelity issue by making Gardener’s husband (John Hodiak, who would die at 41) a drunk with a weak ticker, and he is dispatched conveniently by overgrown-boy villain Vincent Price early in the third act. Charles Laughton, as a porcine, oily middleman, steals the show with his unique line readings, while Taylor is handsome and wooden. This is a decent if unmemorable film until the last fifteen minutes, when director Leonard, emulating Lady from Shanghai-period Welles, pulls out the noir stops with a dark-room standoff and a shootout amidst the fireworks at carnival. I might not have made it through this if not for the breathtaking young Ava Gardener. She has lovely shoulders which the producers bare at every opportunity.

Deep Valley, directed by Jean Negulesco (1947)

A stuttering, socially awkward young woman, Libby, (Ida Lupino) who lives with her bitter, loveless parents (Fay Bainter, Henry Hull) in a ramshackle home off the California coastline, falls in love with a sensitive, violent-prone convict (Dane Clark) after he rabbits from a road crew. They escape to an idyllic existence in a cabin in the woods. Eventually society and the law intrude upon their Eden, with tragic results. Once again, this borrows elements from High Sierra, complete with mutt sidekick, but Deep Valley is not a crime picture. Rather, it is a romantic melodrama featuring high Warner Brothers production values, fairy-tale cinematography by Ted McCord, a lush score by Max Steiner, and strong direction from studio pro Negulesco (Road House). Reportedly, William Faulkner wrote portions of the script. Deep Valleyis a hybrid of sorts and an unusual film experience. The performances are uniformly excellent, with Average Joe, Brooklyn-born Dane Clark and tough gal Ida Lupino standouts as the doomed lovers. Lupino, a natural actress, was also one of the first female American directors and had a long and respected career. For a later performance, check her out in Peckinpah’s quiet, underrated Junior Bonner (1972), starring Steve McQueen. Even in her autumn years, Ida Lupino was luminous.