Chuck Ross

Hokum and Hoodlums to Delight You This Holiday Season

Dec 27, 2014

I hope that one of the tasks you are making time for during the holidays is some binge TV watching. One friend is just now catching up with “Breaking Bad.” (By the way, if you haven’t seen this series, which is, arguably, the best series ever on TV, here’s a suggestion, from the AMC website: “Starting Sunday, December 28 at 10AM/9c, AMC will air every episode, in order, of the Emmy-winning series. The marathon then continues on Monday, December 29 at 9AM/8c and returns every Monday night with back-to-back episodes, commencing in the premiere of the ‘Breaking Bad’ prequel, ‘Better Call Saul’ on February 8.)

Another friend of mine is filling in holes of various episodes of “Mad Men” that she’s missed, as she prepares to watch the final episodes of the show this spring.

And I’ve talked a third friend into checking out ABC’s “How to Get Away with Murder” during this holiday season. I love a good noirish murder mystery, and courtroom dramas as well.

The last time I had high hopes for a noirish mystery thriller on TV my expectations ended in disappointment. It was “The Following,” which debuted in January, 2013, and which, for my money, had the best pilot of any show on a broadcast network that I saw last season. I found it smart, clever, and a little too gruesome. But creator Kevin Williamson certainly had me on the edge of my seat, wanting more. Unfortunately, more soon got to be too much. Most of my friends bailed in that first season when the cops in the show started acting a lot more stupid than the criminals. I made it through a few episodes of season two before I finally turned the show off for good, feeling that the series wasn’t going to offer me anything fresh enough to keep my interest.

If you’re a fan of noirish mystery – and wanna take a break from your binge TV watching, I’ve got a good movie recommendation. It’s “Laura” and you can stream it on Amazon (if you are an Amazon Prime customer you can stream it for free).

Several months ago I wrote about the late Lauren Bacall, and her must-see screen debut in “To Have and Have Not.” As it happens, both that film and “Laura” originally opened in New York theaters on the same day: Oct. 11, 1944.

In that piece about Bacall I quoted the New York Times’ movie critic at the time, Bosley Crowther, in his praise of Bacall. Crowther wrote, “It has been a long time since this corner has had an occasion to remark [on] the sudden and startling arrival of a new personality on the screen. Usually these efflorescent characters are so carefully and slowly brought along that their faces and forms are quite familiar when they do finally reach their radiant bloom. But this time we have a somebody – as a matter of fact, we have two – who have burst upon the screen with all the dazzle of nimble magician’s bouquets.”

One of those somebodies was Bacall. After spending half his column singing her praises he writes, “The other of the signal personalities to bust upon the screen is Clifton Webb, who currently has a top role in ‘Laura.’ Mr. Webb is not without honor and experience on the legitimate stage—and he is not without years, as reckoned in chronological time. Yet, for some inexplicable reason, this is his first movie job (excepting a minor appearance in a short…some years ago.)”

Whereas Bacall was only 19 in her first movie, Webb was 55. Of his role in “Laura” Crowther writes, “Mr. Webb is an actor who fits like a fine suede glove. His is polished, urbane, briskly trenchant in his finished acting style that makes an impression right away. In ‘Laura’ he plays a creature of silky elegance whose caustic wit and cold refinements display him as a super-selfish man. And his fine hauteur and sleek intolerance expose him as a most successful snob.”

Webb’s character has one of the great names in the movies: Waldo Lydecker. The movie opens with Lydecker, unseen, narrating, and it sucks you in immediately:

“I shall never forget the weekend Laura died. A silver sun burned through the sky like a huge magnifying glass. It was the hottest Sunday in my recollection. I felt as if I were the only human being left in New York. For with Laura’s horrible death, I was alone. I, Waldo Lydecker, was the only one who really knew her, and I had just begun to write Laura’s story when another of those detectives came to see me. I had him wait. I could watch him through the half-open door.”

The fine screenplay is by Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein and Betty Reinhardt, based on a novel by Vera Casary. Otto Preminger directed, and the score, one of the most famous ever written for a drama, is by David Raksin.

In almost every scene Webb is the nastiest in a nest of scorpions. These are not nice people. Webb stands out not only in his sartorial splendor, but because he delivers his dialogue as if it’s been dipped in acid, regurgitated like bile from his inner bitch goddess. In what was clearly the performance of the year – if not the decade — in movies, Webb was nominated for Best Supporting Actor. And fittingly, he lost to someone who played the only character someone as bitingly offensive as Lydecker should have lost to: a priest (played by Barry Fitzgerald in “Going My Way”).

Crowther continues about Webb in “Laura”: “Such a role is plainly uncommon on our more or less idealized screen — as, indeed, is the atmosphere of ‘Laura,’ which reeks of refined decadence. Mr. Webb’s performance is well-nigh perfect in its grasp, and his vivid appearance as a person assures him of a groove in audience minds.”

Not only is Webb a standout, but the film’s hero — a detective played by the underrated Dana Andrews, — is a bit of a necrophiliac. The acting is so good I even enjoyed the performance of Judith Anderson, an actress to whom I’ve rarely warmed.

I consider “Laura” a must-see. When French writer Nino Frank first spoke of the phrase film noir, “Laura” was one of the movies to which he referred.

Speaking of movie performances worth catching, there’s one in a movie that carries more traditional holiday auspices that you may want to watch. It’s called “It Happened on Fifth Avenue,” a 1947 comedy that may have slipped under your radar—though it’s usually a favorite this time of year on Turner Classic Movies (TCM). It’s holiday screening there has already aired, but “It Happened on Fifth Avenue,” like “Laura,” is available to stream on Amazon. By the way, at our house we stream Amazon, as we do Nexflix, through our Playstation game console to our 55-inch LED TV, and the picture quality is excellent.

The most-winning performance in “It Happened on Fifth Avenue” is by then 71-year-old Victor Moore. As you learn at the beginning of the film, he plays a hobo who winters in a mansion on New York’s Fifth Avenue, while the mansion’s millionaire industrialist owner is out-of-town for the season.

“It Happened on Fifth Avenue” could have become a movie known by a lot more people if it had been made by the director who had originally optioned the property, Frank Capra.

Soon after the second world war, Capra and fellow director William Wyler formed an independent producing company called Liberty Pictures. Wyler told the New York Times in September, 1945, “Frank Capra is going to do a comedy, a charming little story called ‘It happened on Fifth Avenue,’ which is something like ‘It Happened One Night.’

In fact, the former is not really like “It Happened One Night” at all. Marc Elliott, who wrote “Jimmy Stewart: A Biography” in 2006 says in that book that “Fifth Avenue” “had been rejected by every studio because it was considered outdated, a Depression movie a decade too late.” He adds that as a project for Capra “It went nowhere.” Capra went on to make “It’s a Wonderful Life,” starring Stewart, as his first postwar film.

Eventually, “It Happened on Fifth Avenue” was made by Allied Artists. Allied Artists was spun off from “B” movie factory Monogram — it was Monogram’s attempt to make more expensive and better pictures. The budget for “It Happened on Fifth Avenue” was a very decent million dollars, and it was directed by Roy Del Ruth, a director who I feel is under appreciated — at some point you need to check out his very entertaining and noteworthy version of “The Maltese Falcon,” made 10 years before the famous Bogart/Huston version in 1941.

To write “It Happened on Fifth Avenue,” Del Ruth, who also produced the movie, enlisted Everett Freeman. The result was an Oscar nomination for Best Story. Freeman also wrote the W.C. Fields classic comedy “You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man” and “Jim Thrope-All American.” Later he co-created a baby-boomer sitcom favorite, “Bachelor Father.”

I don’t know why, “It Happened on Fifth Avenue,” so clearly meant for the Christmas holiday audience, was released in June. The New York Times’ Crowther seemed to have surprised himself by liking it: “A favorite Hollywood pastime—in films anyhow—is that of deflating stuffed shirts and melting frigid hearts….It is not surprising to find it, but it is surprising to discover it done with as much geniality and humor as is evident” in “It Happened on Fifth Avenue.”

Crowther then goes on to praise the performance of Victor Moore as the hobo. “Indeed, there is nothing about this picture more deserving of gratitude than Mr. Moore.”

Over at Time magazine, movie critic James Agee wasn’t as sanguine, though he did realize that audiences liked the film and Moore’s performance in it. Wrote Agee: “Most plausible explanations for the picture’s success are:

1) The presence of Victor Moore, past master of creaky charm and pathos;

2) A show as generally old-fashioned, in a harmless way, as a 1910 mail-order play for amateurs;

3) The fact that now, as in 1910, a producer cannot go wrong with a mass audience if he serves up a whiff of comedy and a whirlwind of hokum.”

I’m not as cynical as Agee. And as the divide between the 99% and the 1% increases today, a film like “It Happened on Fifth Avenue” strikes a genuine chord.

Besides watching “It Happened on Fifth Avenue” and “Laura,” this might be a good week to catch two actors who have done stellar work on TV on the big screen at your local multiplex.

Both, I believe, will be nominated for Academy Awards.

First, check-out “Whiplash,” with a searing performance by J. K. Simmons as music teacher Fletcher. Simmons has done a lot of TV work, from playing Vern Schillinger on “Oz” to Dr. Emil Skoda on various versions of “Law & Order,” to his convincing portrayal of assistant chief Will Pope on “The Closer.” He’s also recognizable from current commercials for Farmer’s Insurance.

Another movie I liked a lot recently is “The Imitation Game,” starring Benedict Cumberbatch. Cumberbatch is most familiar to TV audiences for playing Sherlock Holmes in the modern telling of those classic stories that air on the BBC.

In “The Imitation Game” Cumberbatch gives a memorable performance as the smart, sarcastic, obstinate and somewhat socially-challenged Alan Turing, the math genius, in a true story about the breaking of the secret German code during WW II, and the price one can pay for being original and one’s own person.

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