Springfield Rifle (1952) Review

Director: André De Toth

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Thriller, War, Western

Runtime: 93 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Two years after the popular Winchester ’73 (1950) was released, another rifle-themed western was put in theaters, this one starring Gary Cooper and titled Springfield Rifle. The plot follows Alex “Lex” Kearney (Gary Cooper), an officer in the Union military during the American Civil War who is branded a coward after surrendering a herd of horses to Confederate raiders out West without a fight. The story can be somewhat complicated at times, but I’ll just leave it at that to avoid spoilers (it should be mentioned that the plot description on its IMDb page gives quite a bit away).

Springfield Rifle isn’t the most straightforward film of all time, featuring enough twists and turns to justify its existence. Gary Cooper is at the center of all of this, and the guy’s a real badass. This is perhaps one of his most memorable action and/or adventure movies. The picture contains some material related to Cooper’s character’s relationship with his wife, Erin Kearney (Phyllis Thaxter), but it’s well-integrated into the rest of the flick, not feeling like it was shoehorned in by studio executives. Max Steiner’s musical score is fine.

Fortunately for the film, it’s blessed with some above-average action scenes, whether they be oriented around people punching each other or riding around, shooting at moving targets. There’s a couple of instances of “yowza” stuntwork and an early use of the “Wilhelm scream.” The “smoke-’em-out” action finale would not be approved of by Smokey Bear.

Even if its name is “Springfield Rifle,” Cooper never lets the titular firearm outshine him (although the gun is still pretty cool). Thanks to things like the leading actor’s presence, the beautiful scenery, the thumbs-up-worthy action sequences, and an interesting plot, this war/western/action-adventure movie deserves to be watched. It’s sort of a shame that this feature is largely forgotten about today (maybe because it was sent to theaters the same year as High Noon [1952], another Cooper western that’s even better), because it still satisfies.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Underworld (1927) Review

Directors: Josef von Sternberg and Arthur Rosson

Genre(s): Crime, Drama, Romance

Runtime: 80 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Underworld was one of the first feature-length gangster films, and possibly the first of its kind to be told from the criminals’ point-of-view. This silent movie is about mob boss “Bull” Weed’s (George Bancroft) troubles when his alcoholic lawyer, “Rolls Royce” Wensel (Clive Brook) starts to fall for his moll, “Feathers” McCoy (Evelyn Brent). Yeah, I know that the plot description makes this one sound like an uninteresting romance picture, but, trust me, this crime-drama is worth watching.

Aided by a swift 80-minute runtime, Underworld features pulpy dialogue that helped it win an Oscar for Best Writing (Original Story) at the first ever Academy Awards. Also of note is its proto-noirish cinematography that emphasizes shadows. The number of characters in the flick is kept relatively small, so it’s not exactly hard to keep track of everybody.

Physical action in this feature, while dynamic, is fairly limited until the finale. The climatic shootout is a real surprise, being more exciting than the final gunfights of many sound-era mobster movies of the following decade – the 1930s. I’m not exaggerating. It brings both the drama and action elements of the film together on a strong note.

While Underworld doesn’t quite rank up there with my all-time favorite gangster pictures, thanks to romance occasionally running away with the plot, it’s still a startlingly good entry into the organized crime subgenre, especially when its age is taken into account. It begins and ends with a bang, and has some of the best directing that I’ve seen from the silent era. Fans of early mob cinema need to watch it.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

The Man Who Laughs (1928) Review

Director: Paul Leni

Genre(s): Drama, Romance

Runtime: 110 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

One of the primary inspirations for Batman’s main foe, the Joker, was the titular character of the 1928 silent epic The Man Who Laughs. Set in England in the late 1600s and early 1700s, a man whose face was mutilated as a child to make it appear like he’s always showing a toothy grin named Gwynplaine (Conrad Veidt) becomes a carnival freak and gets tangled up in royal intrigue at the highest level. Considered one of the best movies of the silent era, this film largely lives up to its acclaim.

One of the first things you should know about this picture is that it’s not really a horror flick, as its reputation would suggest. There’s some horror-style imagery towards the beginning, but, for the most part, this is a gothic-style melodrama with heavy romance elements. Believe it or not, there is also some action-adventure-type stuff near the end of the runtime. Even if it’s not truly a horror film, the movie features a sea of grotesque faces to gander at, more than just the one on Gwynplaine.

It’s interesting to note that the title role was initially going to go to Lon Chaney, before it was decided that Conrad Veidt should get it. Here, Veidt gives one of the very best performances of the silent era. He has a permanent smile etched on his face, but he is a tormented man, as can be seen in his pathos-ridden eyes. He’s clearly the hero of the story, even if he inspired the villainous Joker. The rest of the characters in the feature are generally pretty well-defined.

Yes, there are a couple of scenes in The Man Who Laughs that border on slow, but this is relatively late silent movie, so things mostly move along satisfactorily. It has appealing visuals and the plot, which some may find soapy, keeps things together. It’s an American production, but wouldn’t feel out of place among the German Expressionist pictures of the time period. Silent film lovers will almost certainly find enough here for me to recommend it.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

The Petrified Forest (1936) Review

Director: Archie Mayo

Genre(s): Crime, Drama, Romance

Runtime: 82 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The Petrified Forest was the film that caused the world to take notice of Humphrey Bogart. It’s not his best movie, but it’s still a good one. One day, a small group of gangsters led by Duke Mantee (Humphrey Bogart) hold hostage a remote diner/gas station in the middle of the Western United States, crashing a love triangle between wandering poet-at-heart Alan Squier (Leslie Howard), the diner’s waitress, Gabrielle Maple (Bette Davis), and the gas station attendant, Boze Hertzlinger (Dick Foran). It’s a compact, atmospheric drama with clearly-drawn characters

For a crime picture, this one takes place entirely outside of gangland. In fact, being based on a 1935 play of the same title, almost all of the action takes place at a roadside diner “on the edge of nowhere” or its immediate exterior. You can tell it was based on a play, but this doesn’t hurt the flick. I wouldn’t recommend The Petrified Forest if you’re just looking for physical action, though, as the body count is minuscule, although there is a shootout at the end.

For the most part, it’s the characters that keep this feature afloat. This is Humphrey Bogart’s show, as he plays his role – sort of a more murderous version of John Dillinger – with a tightly-wound intensity. Leslie Howard’s character is an insufferable asshole, but he certainly stands out. Also worthy of note is Gramp Maple (Charley Grapewin), Bette Davis’ character’s grandfather, an old-timer who just can’t wait to see somebody get killed. The few interactions between the two black characters, a gangster named Slim (Slim Thompson) and a chauffeur for a rich couple named Joseph (John Alexander) are priceless.

The Petrified Forest is very much above-average, even if it sometimes threatens to sink under Howard’s character’s philosophical ramblings. Fortunately for the audience, Bogart and his crew show up, adding some extra tension. Fans of Bogie or of relatively early organized crime movies will want to seek this one out.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

‘Gung Ho!’: The Story of Carlson’s Makin Island Raiders (1943) Review

Director: Ray Enright

Genre(s): Action, War

Runtime: 88 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Made in the middle of World War II, ‘Gung Ho!’: The Story of Carlson’s Makin Island Raiders is a rough-and-tumble war actioner designed to raise the spirits of the American populace and remind them what they’re fighting for. Shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, an elite team of American Marines is assembled for a secret mission during World War II. Their objective: raid the Japanese-occupied outpost of Makin Island, killing all enemy soldiers and leveling the place. Based on a true story, this a swell piece of propaganda.

Humorous at times, Gung Ho! does an able job of the building up to the final action sequences on Makin Island. The training scenes are cool and the part where the raiders are packed into submarines like sardines elicits a greater sense of claustrophobia than anything in Das Boot (1981). The battle scenes in the third act are very good, packed with gunfire, stabbings, and big explosions.

What holds Gung Ho! back from being one of the greats is that many of its characters are, more or less, interchangeable. Just about the only folks in the picture to make an impression are Colonel Thorwald (Randolph Scott) and “Pig-Iron” (Robert Mitchum), and that’s because they’re played by famous actors. There’s also some minor romance towards the beginning of the runtime that doesn’t have a significant payoff. Gung Ho! is sometimes derided as it’s a piece of war-time propaganda partially made to whip up hatred of the Japanese. I don’t really hold this against the film, though.

Gung Ho! is, in my opinion, one of the better combat movies to be released during World War II. As bloodthirsty as it occasionally is, its heart is in the right place. It’s not as slick as some of the other flicks from this time period and many of its characters get lost in the shuffle, but this is still a piece of cinema that begs to be watched by war film addicts.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Last Train from Gun Hill (1959) Review

Director: John Sturges

Genre(s): Drama, Western

Runtime: 95 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

One of the movies that director John Sturges brought to the world before his two masterpieces – The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Great Escape (1963) – was 1959’s Last Train from Gun Hill. In the Old West, Marshal Matt Morgan (Kirk Douglas) sets out to the town of Gun Hill to arrest the two men who raped and murdered his Native American wife, Catherine (Ziva Rodann). However, that town is now completely under the domination of his former best friend Craig Belden (Anthony Quinn), now a mob-boss-like cattle baron. To complicate matters, Belden’s son, Rick (Earl Holliman), is one of the killers.

The film’s plot may sound a bit unwieldy in text, but the relatively straightforward storytelling keeps things understandable. The only aspect slowing down the action is a subplot involving the character of Linda (Carolyn Jones), which probably could’ve been reduced to tighten up the picture. Still, physical action is fairly common in Last Train from Gun Hill, although these moments are pretty short. For a while, the film feels like Die Hard (1988) set in a Wild West hotel.

The feature’s musical score is average, despite being provided by the great Dimitri Tiomkin. Although the primary draw of this western is to see Kirk Douglas and Anthony Quinn face off against each other, I feel the need to point out a couple of members of the supporting cast. Brad Dexter, who would play Harry Luck in The Magnificent Seven, shows up as Beero (nice name), Quinn’s character’s head henchman. Also, the guy who plays Lee Smithers, the member of the raping duo who’s not Earl Holliman’s Rick, is Brian G. Hutton, who would go on to direct Where Eagles Dare (1968) and Kelly’s Heroes (1970).

Fans of John Sturges will probably enjoy this no-frills, pro-law-and-order western film. It’s no life-changing experience, but it is a rock-solid movie with a respectable amount of action and an intriguing plot. If you’ve seen it and liked it, I’d highly recommend the other two classics directed by Sturges that I mentioned at the beginning of this review.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Little Caesar (1931) Review

Director: Mervyn LeRoy

Genre(s): Crime, Drama

Runtime: 79 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Little Caesar is famous for being one of the first major gangster movies of the sound era. It may be a bit creaky by today’s eye, but it holds up pretty well. The plot, which may sound familiar, is about small-time hoodlum Rico Bandello (Edward G. Robinson) joining the mob to make a name for himself. Made during Hollywood’s Pre-Code period (before the enforcement of the Production Code), this picture raised concerns that it was celebrating the outlaw lifestyle.

The standout element of Little Caesar is Edward G. Robinson’s performance as the titular character. He’s really a natural, making most of the rest of the cast look like they’re made out of wood. Check out the flophouse scene for some of Robinson’s best acting in the feature. While we’re on the subject of acting, take a gander at Thomas E. Jackson’s turn as police officer Sergeant Flaherty. I can’t tell if it’s the most brilliant performance I’ve ever seen…or the worst. Not every character registers, but enough do to make it coherent.

Little Caesar has fair-enough pacing. Sometimes things move pretty quickly (the first shot of the movie, after the opening credits, is a stickup, after all), and sometimes there’s just a hair too much talking. Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating, because it’s never boring and the runtime is only 79 minutes. The whole flick is a little primitive-feeling at times, but that’s pretty much expected for a 1931 release.

It’s Robinson that breathes life into this entertaining crime-drama (it’s the role that made him a star). It’s not an action movie, so don’t expect a bunch of explosions and you might have a good time. There are better Pre-Code gangster films out there – namely Scarface (1932) and The Public Enemy (1931) – but this one beat them all to the punch.

My rating is 7 outta 10.