To inaugurate my new and improved ONE WAY STREET blog and web site, I am posting my introduction to THE BIG COMBO and PITFALL double feature when I presented on Wednesday night at the Million Dollar Theatre in downtown L.A. While I was crossing the street at the corner of 3rd, I gazed across Broadway at the Bradbury building and realized that this was where Edmond O’Brien, wracked with pain from luminous poisoning, staggered to his rendezvous with destiny in D.O.A. This was also where Lon Chaney Jr., recently revived from the San Quentin gas chamber, murderously prowled for “Squeemy Ellis” in Indestructible Man and where Jack Lemmon parked his T-Bird filled with ladders, paint, and Romy Schneider to deface a billboard in Good Neighbor Sam. This was also the same real estate where Harrison Ford was assigned to hunt replicants in Blade Runner (1982). I was treading on cinematic hallowed ground. And when I arrived under the marquee of Sid Grauman’s 1918 movie palace and was greeted by 83-year old actor Clu Gulager who actually walked from West Hollywood to attend this screening, I knew at that moment, there was no other place I would rather be.
“It is always a distinct privilege to participate in an event involving the UCLA Film and Television Archive. The Archive’s mutually beneficial partnership with The Film Noir Foundation has resulted in the complete restoration of The Prowler and Cry Danger along with the archiving of new 35 mm prints of such classic noir titles as High Wall, Loophole, Cry Tough, Down Three Dark Streets and more recently Three Strangers.
Tonight is an auspicious event at the Million Dollar, Sid Grauman’s first Los Angeles movie palace. I hosted the 2008 reopening during the L.A. Conservancy’s Last Remaining Seats festival to introduce Mildred Pierce and last year with special guest Patrice Wymore for Captain Blood. Although the two movies being screened tonight may not be as famous, both are equally terrific films and personal favorites. Quantifying exactly what film noir is has proven to be well-nigh impossible and the perpetual discussion to determine what is or isn’t film noir certainly adds to its cachet. It might be that noir is best defined by the cliché “I Know it when I see it” Simply put, The Big Combo and Pitfall epitomize what the film noir style is all about.
The Big Combo is a 1955 crime film that reflects the “ripped from the headlines” influence of the Kefauver senatorial crime committee of 1950-51. The “Combo” of the title refers to The Combination, the Syndicate or the Mafia. As a result of the increased public awareness of organized crime in the 1950’s, Hollywood brought forth a wave of movies that transcended both the gangster pictures of the 1930’s and “the play by their own rules” hard-boiled noir protagonists of Hammett, Chandler, and Cain et al. Movies including 711 Ocean Drive, The Enforcer, The Turning Point, The Mob, Hoodlum Empire, Captive City and New York Confidential portrayed crime-as-corporatism, a second shadowy government that was something much more monolithic than Cagney blasting away at George Bancroft with a .45 or laid back Robert Mitchum being able to thread his way through a conniving dame, a missing 40 grand and a pissed-off Kirk Douglas.
Thematically, what distinguishes The Big Combo from these other films starts with the credited screenwriter Philip Yordan. A born hustler, Phil was a legendarily furtive figure in Hollywood history. An Academy award winning writer for Broken Lance, 70 screenplays and original stories (Dillinger, The Chase, The Harder They Fall, Detective Story, Johnny Guitar, The Man from Laramie, etc.) under his belt as well being an accomplished Producer. Yet nobody can still figure out if Phil actually wrote one word in any of the scripts he was credited for. You see, Phil used surrogates to write his scripts, split the fees and took the screen credit. He became particularly adept at this during the Blacklist period by hiring screenwriters who had been blacklisted, particularly Ben Maddow – who likely wrote the balance of The Big Combo – and Bernard Gordon.
Lest you think Phil was a total blackguard; he wasn’t. Yordan was a bright, talented, clever opportunist whose sole focus was making money. He mastered the art of the deal in Hollywood and for the most part, kept his agreements. Indeed both Bernie Gordon and Maddow considered Yordan a close friend and had great admiration for him. Phil’s most outrageous acts with the studios such as selling the rights to a book he hadn’t written yet while simultaneously obtaining the screenplay rights from his publisher for same yet to be published tome were always marked by a unique, larcenous dash. If there had been an Academy Award in the category of chutzpah, Phil Yordan would have won this particular Oscar multiple times.
The Big Combo reflects this Yordanesque personality of his Chicago street smarts and limitless ambition as exemplified by Richard Conte as the Mob leader, Mr. Brown. One only has to take in Conte’s first scene to realize that this film is much more than a boilerplate story about organized crime. It is about those base impulses that comprise the timeless essence of noir: hate, greed, power and lust. The movie becomes a race to see whether Conte or Cornel Wilde, a police lieutenant whose own day-to-day is threaded with obsessive dark alleys, will claim the trophy woman, Jean Wallace, a vulnerable sexual pawn who drowns her pain with pills and hopes for the best.
Nick Conte (his actual first name) was one of the great film noir protagonists who landed the Mr. Brown part by default. Jack Palance already been cast in the role via a handshake agreement, but subsequently insisted that his wife Virginia Baker be cast as Wilde’s girlfriend. Director Joseph Lewis was not one for ultimatums and Palance was dropped for Conte. Helene Stanton Pinsky who ended up with the role as Wilde’s girlfriend – yes, Dr. Drew’s Mom – asked me to convey both her regrets on not being here tonight and best wishes all of you. She further advised me that as part of the agreement to play the part, she had to dye her hair to dark brunette as to not conflict with Jean Wallace’s blond tresses.
As a sidebar: Jean Wallace and Cornel Wilde were married in 1951 and remained so for 30 years. In yet another true life Hollywood-as noir finale, Wallace passed away in 1990 in her Beverly Hills home after surviving two suicide attempts in the 1940’s during a tumultuous union with actor Franchot Tone. She died alone with her pets that included two snakes, a tarantula, a parrot, rabbits and a duck.
The Big Combo is a dark, visual feast thanks to cinematographer John Alton and director Joseph Lewis. Alton was a revolutionary lenser whose 1949 book Painting with Light was a technical revelation about lighting and movie photography. His guiding precept was that less lighting resulted in greater mood and atmosphere. No single individual is more responsible for what is considered to be the charicusco noir look than John Alton. Indeed, THE BIG COMBO frame grab used for the blurb for this film showing Cornel Wilde and Jean Wallace outlined in front of a darkened airplane hangar has become a visual synonym for film noir.
Alton came to noir via his partnership with Anthony Mann beginning at Eagle-Lion studios with films such as T-Men and Raw Deal. Thanks to Dore Schary, both men ended up at MGM with Alton winning the Academy Award for the distinctly non-noir An American in Paris.
The late Arnold Laven was the script supervisor on many of the Eagle Lion films shot by Alton. He told me that Alton came in and eliminated all of the overhead lighting from scaffolding and lit everything from the floor. As Arnold put it, because he was so lighting fast and proficient, “Alton gave the director so much more freedom to be creative.” John Alton was a brilliant man didn’t suffer fools gladly, ended up cutting the electrical staff virtually in half on most of his films and so became widely disliked which ended up truncating his brilliant career. Director Joseph Lewis in an interview with Robert Porfirio said that Alton “…was unfortunately for him, so good, so brilliant, too magnificent. that he frightened his contemporaries and studio bosses and they kicked him out.”
Joe Lewis is best remembered for directing the seminal film noir Gun Crazy in 1949 for the King Brothers. He was a visual stylist (nicknamed Wagon Wheel Joe) who never hit the box office home run and ended up going into television-countless episodes of The Rifleman and The Big Valley– as the studio system receded in the late 1950’s. With The Big Combo, Lewis was daring in terms of content and certainly knew how to pull the wool over the eyes of the Production Code Authority censors. In addition to turning Nick Conte’s two torpedoes Fante and Mingo (Lee Van Cleef and Earl Holliman) into a transparently gay couple, Lewis designed one scene with Wallace and Conte that initially sent the censors into orbit while enraging Wallace’s husband, Cornel Wilde. Amazingly, the sequence stayed in when Lewis convinced the censor’s office that they were the ones with the dirty mind… he was simply shooting a fade-out scene in a crime movie.
With all of this talent- script, photography, direction, acting, The Big Combo also boasts a captivating jazzy score composed by the great David Raksin, a long way from Laura but just as compelling.
Compelling is an apt description for Pitfall (1948) perhaps the seminal instance of post WWII noir realism that takes the American dream of success, security and the nuclear family and flips it over on its head into something dark, frightening and unalterably real.
Produced by Regal Films that was jointly owned by Dick Powell, Sam Bischoff and Edward Gross and released through United Artists. Pitfall was directed by iconoclastic Andre de Toth who believed emphatically in portraying real life both from characterization and visual perspectives. Both with Pitfall and later Crime Wave, de Toth leaves the sound stages behind and provides a virtual tour of the streets of Los Angeles. An underrated craftsman, de Toth created authentic characters in true-life situations with a unique urban oeuvre. According to Bertrand Tavernier, Pitfall remains an under-the-radar masterpiece of film noir; a critical sentiment I heartily agree with.
Front and center is Dick Powell who first reinvented himself from the crooning hoofer of 42nd Street and Footlight Parade to private eye Philip Marlowe in Murder My Sweet in 1944. (Sidebar: Powell begged to play the role that went to Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity). Powell recreates his screen persona again in Pitfall playing a distinctly disreputable businessman who puts his career, his family – an uber loyal wife by Jane Wyatt and son Jimmy Hunt – and eventually his own life on the line after getting a midlife sweet tooth for Lizabeth Scott. Miss Scott, who remains hale and hearty, burnished her noir chops as a loan out from Hal Wallis who had her under contact. It is one of her favorite pictures and arguably the best performance of her career.
Miss Scott, who also couldn’t join us tonight, passed me some recollections about the film to share with you: “The whole experience of making Pitfall was delicious! Dick Powell was gracious and kind. His attitude inspired me. He was a pleasure to work with. Andre de Toth was exceptional. We were a compatible group.”
Pitfall quickly descends into more than Powell bargained for when Raymond Burr enters the scene as a seedy private eye who is definitely not a graduate from the Philip Marlowe detective school. Burr provides oily heft as the spine of the movie.
A sidebar about Mr. Burr. He put a permanent stamp of odiousness on the noir heavy template both in this film and Raw Deal that was released several months earlier in the summer of 1948. De Toth claimed he chose Burr for Pitfall after a stack of stills fell on the floor during the casting process and Burr’s ended up on top when he reached down to pick up the pile.
Ironic to consider how the future Perry Mason was selected out of a veritable line up for a film noir?
The script of Pitfall is nominally credited to Karl Kamb based on Jay Dratler’s novel. De Toth reportedly contributed as well, but the authentic credit for the crackling, timely dialogue must go to Bill Bowers, the poet laureate of film noir screenplays.
For those of you unfamiliar with Bill, he wrote one of the classic Westerns ever made, The Gunfighter and earned the permanent enmity of John Wayne when he sold the screenplay to Fox for more money instead of the Duke. The Bill Bowers noir resume includes: The Web, Criss Cross, Cry Danger, Abandoned, The Mob and Tight Spot and his writing is imbued with the pithy wit that made him one of the best raconteurs in Hollywood. Bill’s dialogue made so many of these films noir delightful without ever descending into parody or trying to make them something that they weren’t. He was truly a funny man. If you don’t believe me, go watch the film Support Your Local Sheriff, a wholly hilarious Bowers creation. And I would like to recognize Bill’s son, Andy Bowers who is here in the audience tonight.
So to quote Richard Conte’s Mr. Brown in The Big Combo, “First is first and second is nobody.” Tonight: You, the audience, are first because you came out to watch these two magnificently restored films. And nobody are all the people who didn’t do likewise!
Please enjoy a dynamite film noir doubleheader of The Big Combo and Pitfall. Thank you so much for coming to tonight’s screening.”