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Thursday, June 6, 2024


"Yesterday's pain is tomorrow's joke”

Fate draws together four disparate ‘angels’ on a dismal, rainy night in New York City and weaves a fairytale of redemption that can only exist on the screen. Mousey Charles Engle (John Qualen) has embezzled from his domineering employer in an effort to win back his unfaithful wife. Contemplating suicide, he takes himself out for one last night on the town where he meets slick grifter Bill O’Brien (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) and his latest pick-up, naive Nina Barona (Rita Hayworth), an out of work Russian ‘dancer’. Bill connives to fleece Engle in a crooked poker game not realizing he’s all but broke. Enter Gene Gibbons (Thomas Mitchell), a drunken, once-renowned playwright, who attempts to rewrite each of their stories to give them all a happy ending.

Gibbons concocts a plan that will let Engle to win just enough from the rigged game to repay his boss, but allow him to escape without the hoods realizing they’ve been taken. The catch is that it requires the players act out their parts with a precision that their lives have never had.

Mitchell, Qualen, Fairbanks Jr. & Hayworth

Angels Over Broadway (1940) (also called Before I Die) was nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for Hollywood’s top script doctor and screenwriter, Ben Hecht. It was the first of two co-directing collaborations between Hecht and acclaimed cinematographer Lee Garmes. Garmes was a genius at creating an impossibly dream-like reality through his camera lens and won an Oscar working with Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich on Shanghai Express (1932). Only his soft-focus style could have a created a gossamer vision of a corrupt world in which broken dreams and lives could be remade.

Hecht was a top Broadway playwright (e.g., The Front Page (1928) with Charles MacArthur) before he was lured to Hollywood where he wrote the stories or screenplays for a number of classic films (Viva Villa!, 1934; The Scoundrel, 1935; Stagecoach, 1939; Notorious, 1946). He understood the seedy, often corrupt world that put fantasies on the stage and screen for the public to lose themselves in. When Thomas Mitchell describes his restaurant surroundings as  “… one of the musical graveyards of the town. Caters to zombies hopping around with dead hearts and price tags for souls”, Hecht is describing the Entertainment Business.

The caustic edge to Hecht’s dialogue was likely enhanced coming as it was one year after Gone With The Wind (1939) swept the Oscar’s. Hecht famously rewrote its script, but having received no screen credit, saw his own screenplay (with MacArthur) for Wuthering Heights (1939) lose to the blockbuster. Similarly, Garmes is credited with filming most of the first hour of Gone With The Wind only to see its Oscar for best cinematography go to Ernest Haller and Ray Rennahan. It’s easy to imagine these two talented, but disgruntled artists wanting to take the industry down a notch.

The unreal world of Angels Over Broadway has its archetypical characters moving like actors living out their lives in someone else’s (Hecht’s) dream. Dialogue is delivered in soliloquies and the plot moves from one tableau to the next as the characters reposition themselves for the most dramatic effect. None of this is a criticism, however, especially if you enjoy great dialogue delivered by actors giving top notch performances.

Thomas Mitchell was an actor who excelled at breathing life and pathos into flawed characters. His sonorous Gene Gibbons shines the light of truth into the corrupt shadows of the Hollywood (a Business first; Art a very distant second). Only in a Hollywood dream could Gene Gibbons wake up from his drunken stupor, forgetting the plot that he had set in motion, and exit the film to find forgiveness with his unseen, but much mentioned wife.

This leaves the panicked Nina and Bill to try to pull off the poker game double-cross even as the wheels come off the departed Gibbons' plan. If this was a film noir (a genre only beginning to solidify in 1940), all of our remaining heroes would end up dead or worse – left alive to continue their loveless, hopeless existence. Anticipating a classic Film Noir trope, the film opens with the voice over narration of a down on his luck, rain-soaked, Fairbanks huddled in his trench coat on Broadway recounting the story of his sorry life. In this one scene Hecht and Garmes set the template for every film noir hero who was to follow throughout the rest of the 40’s.

Fortunately for Engle (literally ‘angel’ in German), Nina and Bill, Hecht has written a better ending for them all. Although things do not go as planned, the plot resolves with Engle avoiding jail, and Bill and Nina coming together (was there ever any doubt?).

By 1940, Rita Hayworth’s star was on the rise. She had a minor role in Only Angels Have Wings (1939), but was about to achieve greater acclaim next to James Cagney in Strawberry Blonde (1941). In Angels Over Broadway, Rita gets to show off her comedic abilities in her first leading role in an A picture. The breathless, slightly ditsy, curvaceous Nina Barona anticipates Marilyn Monroe’s bombshell persona that was still a decade away.

The category for Angels Over Broadway is not easy to pigeon-hole. Drama-like, its themes are dark, dealing with potential suicide and lives that should be in despair, but it never approaches melodrama. Even when Nina muses that she "never knew anyone who wanted to die. Except myself", it does not seem to prophesize any real danger for her. Neither is the film a comedy, although it has many comedic moments. Farce-like in places, it is probably best considered a fantasy, if only for its upbeat ending – improbable in real life, but the real currency of Hollywood. Despite the biting nature of much of Hecht’s dialogue, he still knows to give the audience what they want.

Let’s leave the final summation of the film to Thomas Mitchell’s Gene Gibbons:

"A tragic tale, brother. A little confused, and badly constructed."

Perhaps a bit harsh in my opinion, but a fitting epitaph for an enjoyable film.

IS ANGELS OVER BROADWAY WORTH MY TIME? Reviews for this film are mixed, but I enjoyed the well-crafted dialogue delivered by interesting characters. Everyone here is a caricature, but we’ve all met someone like them, even given the implausibility that Hayworth or Fairbanks Jr could ever be the losers that they are written as. The plot is secondary to the individual scenes, but each is gorgeously composed by Lee Garmes. At only 79 minutes, it’s a breezy romp that also features a number of good moments from the cast of minor players.

AVAILABILITY: Still available on DVD and some streaming services.

ANGELS OVER BROADWAY. Columbia Pictures. 1940. Starring Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Thomas Mitchell, Rita Hayworth. John Qualen. Written by Ben Hecht. Cinematography by Lee Garmes. Music by George Antheil. Co-directed by Ben Hecht and Garmes. 79 min.

Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Destination Murder (1950)


A killer has only one destination --- MURDER

Frustrated by the seeming lack of action by the police, Laura Mansfield (Joyce MacKenzie) is determined to find the people that ordered a hit on her father in this speedy little low-budget crime drama cum B noir produced and directed by Edward Cahn for RKO.

Rather than identifying hit man Jackie Wales (Stanley Clements) to the police, Laura starts dating him(!) him to (I guess) find out who his boss is. After Jackie gets beaten up by eponymous gangster Armitage (Albert Dekker), Laura suspects his involvement & takes a job at his night club. Complications ensure when Laura falls in loves with No. 2 man Stretch Norton (Hurd Hatfield), initiating a triangle with Armitage's mistress, Alice Wentworth (Myrna Dell), who is also putting the moves on Stretch and hoping that he’ll rub out Armitage for her.

Joyce MacKenzie and Hurd Hatfield

Like any good femme fatale, Alice also has her own hidden agenda. She cons Jackie into writing a confession that they can use to blackmail Armitage, but that she’ll hold onto. By doing so she plans for Jackie and Armitage to knock each other off – and hopefully the bothersome Laura as well – leaving Stretch to her and the business to both of them. In the background is the film’s only sensible character, police lieutenant Brewster (James Flavin) who seems to be two steps ahead of everyone, but is stymied by Laura’s rogue determination to solve the case on her own.

Much like The Big Sleep (1946), trying to justify the logic of the plot and the characters actions is a mug’s game in a film where internal logic is trumped by a forward momentum that will keep you hooked. Destination Murder has enough solid film noir touches to keep you from noticing when Joyce MacKenzie’s wooden performance applies the brakes to any scene that she is in. But otherwise, it’s full speed ahead in this fun, minor B film.

Hatfield and Albert Dekker

Classic noir scenarios include Jackie Wales stepping out on his date during a 5 minute movie intermission to kill Laura’s father. Later he is beaten by Armitage as a player piano drowns out the violence, while a disinterested Alice coolly adjusts her makeup. Cinematographer Jackson Rose gave this and other scenes featuring Myrna Dell his best Nicholas Musuraca-like noir lighting touches.

Director Edward Cahn is best known for directing the Our Gang comedies from 1939 to 1943. He always knew how to get the most out of the low budgets that he had to work with, rarely turning out a less than highly entertaining film. His work in the horror and SF genre during the 50’s produced a series of minor, but much loved B movie classics such as The She-Creature (1956), Invasion of the Saucer Men (1957), It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958), and many others including Invisible Invaders (1959) that is seen today as a precursor to Night of The Living Dead (1948) a decade later.

Top-billed Joyce MacKenzie once described herself as "a poor man's movie star". Destination Murder was a rare top billing for her, but she made her mark on a number of A films, including being the only female character (uncredited) in Twelve O'Clock High (1949) and supporting roles in Broken Arrow (1950) with Jimmy Stewart, The Racket (1951) with Robert Mitchum and Deadline U.S.A. (1952) with Humphrey Bogart.

Stanley Clements is best remembered as Leo Gorcey's replacement as the leader of the Bowery Boys in the final entries of the film series, although he appeared in a number of bigger budget films before WW II.

Despite the leaden acting of MacKenzie, most of the film’s other character actors deliver solid, if unremarkable performances. The exceptions being the galvanizing Myrna Dell’s conniving bad girl Alice and James Flavin’s measured police lieutenant.  

Gorgeous blonde Myrna Dell had enough charisma to become a bigger starlet, but she often found her best film roles playing the hard-bitten, bad girls that all low budget B noirs thrived on. When called on she could be evil incarnate as she was playing the ruthless daughter of rancher Lon Chaney in Bushwackers (1951).

Destination Murder suffers a bit when both her Alice and Clement’s Jackie are bumped off  relatively early in the film when their blackmailing double cross goes sour. This leaves the film to wrap up with at least one semi-surprising character revelation and a humbled Laura finally realizing how really deep over her head she had actually been. Although all of the bad guys get their due, viewers will be left scratching their heads as to why the screenwriter, Don Martin, had Laura’s father murdered in the first place.

I can’t let this review conclude without praising the work of James Flavin (above). Flavin appeared in 100’s of films during his career, but rarely got a screen credit. He was typecast as no nonsense policemen and most of his appearances were brief, but he shared screen time with almost every big star in the 30’s and 40’s including Carole Lombard and William Powell (My Man Godfrey, 1936), Henry Forda (Grapes of Wrath, 1940), famously hitting Fonda in the face, Joan Crawford (Mildred Pierce, 1945) and King Kong (1933) (“Hey, it’s Kong, Kong’s coming”). His comedic side shone through in larger roles such as Errol Flynn’s fast-talking, pugnacious brother in Gentlemen Jim (1942). Here Flavin gives a grounded performance as Lt. Brewster. Although most of his scenes are in his office, he arrives at the film's climax to go mano a mano with the criminal mastermind to save Laura who finally learns to her chagrin who ordered her father killed.

Lastly, a tip of the hat has to go to composer Irving Gertz who worked on many notable productions including The Alligator People (1959), Curse of the Undead (1959), The Leech Woman (1960), Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964) and Land of the Giants (1968).

Is the Destination Murder Worth My Time? The prefect film to wind down the day with. Ignore the convoluted plot and enjoy the ride watching Myrna Dell and James Flavin walk away with this untidy, but entertaining film.

Availability: Not on DVD as far as I know, but a watchable copy is currently available at Archive.org

DESTINATION MURDER. Prominent Features Inc. 1950. Staring  Joyce MacKenzie, Stanley Clements, Hurd Hatfield, Albert Dekker, Myrna Dell & James Flavin. Written by Don Martin. Directed by Edward L. Cahn. Distributed by RKO Pictures. 72 minutes