Gun Crazy (1950) Review

Director: Joseph H. Lewis

Genre(s): Crime, Drama, Romance, Thriller

Runtime: 87 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

I’m generally not the biggest fan of film noir, but once in a while I’ll see one that really tickles my fancy. Gun Crazy is one of those movies. The story is about two firearms-obsessed crack-shots – Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins) and Bart Tare (John Dall) – who fall in love and go on a crime spree. Does this sound like Bonnie and Clyde (1967) to you? It’s certainly an important precursor to that landmark picture.

Gun Crazy is an interesting dive into the United States’ fascination with firearms. It’s a fine character study, too, being a b-movie that looks like an a-movie, thanks to its production values. The budget was low, but the strong cinematography and acting do a great deal to elevate the proceedings. The runtime is only eighty-seven minutes, so it trucks along at a good pace.

This feature has more action than your average film noir, which is probably a key reason why I enjoyed it more than most examples of that style. The body count remains relatively low, but many scenes still involve somebody taking out a pistol. One of the best sequences in the film is a one-shot robbery scene that must’ve been pretty ambitious considering the low budget.

No, I don’t love this one more than the aforementioned masterpiece Bonnie and Clyde, but it’s still a very entertaining, stylish little flick. This thriller even has a non-criminal character named “Clyde” – Clyde Boston (Harry Lewis). It lives up to its lurid title and its sensationalistic tagline (“Thrill Crazy…Kill Crazy…Gun Crazy“). Even if you’re not a noir person, this one still might be worth tracking down.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

The Unknown (1927) Review

Director: Tod Browning

Genre(s): Drama, Romance, Thriller

Runtime: 63 minutes (original version), 49 minutes (DVD version)

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The silent drama-thriller The Unknown was one of ten movies that actor Lon Chaney made with director Tod Browning. Alonzo (Lon Chaney) is a shady circus knife-thrower with no arms (he tosses the blades with his feet) who’s willing to do anything to win the love of Nanon (Joan Crawford). First, Chaney had no legs in The Penalty (1920) and now he’s performing without any arms! What a trooper!

Lon Chaney is in top form here. He appears to be a top-notch contortionist, performing activities with his feet that one would normally do with their hands. A trip to the Trivia page on IMDb for The Unknown reveals that he occasionally had a double in this picture, the actually armless Paul Desmuke, for scenes that required that extra bit of talent, like those involving playing a musical instrument with the feet. This is incorporated seamlessly into the finished film.

This is a somewhat twisted movie, but, with a current running time of only 49 minutes, it does feel a little undercooked at times. A longer version existed at one time. That being said, the climax is appropriately tense and the overall picture certainly isn’t boring. As with many Lon Chaney flicks, this one revolves around a romantic triangle where he plays the grotesque figure.

The Unknown is definitely a one-of-a-kind movie, but I don’t think it’s quite as good as some of the other features starring Lon Chaney. Maybe the long-lost footage would improve the finished product. It’s a macabre treat (though not a horror film, as some have suggested), but I think it needs those missing sequences to soar. That being said, I’d still recommend it.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928) Review

Director: Herbert Brenon

Genre(s): Drama, Romance

Runtime: 73 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Lon Chaney played an unnerving clown before, in He Who Gets Slapped (1924), and, in 1928, another silent film with him playing a neurotic member of that profession was released, titled “Laugh, Clown, Laugh.” Here, increasingly depressed Italian clown Tito (Lon Chaney) adopts an abandoned orphan, Simonetta (Loretta Young), only to develop romantic feelings for her over the years, and vie for her love with Count Luigi Ravelli (Nils Asther). Ew. Not cool, Lon Chaney, not cool.

The relationship between Chaney’s character and his adoptive daughter is deliberately creepy, and not viewed as something typical for the 1920s or whatever. He knows his feelings are wrong, and it’s tearing him apart. Chaney, as you would expect, does an ace job playing a performer who hides his pain while entertaining countless people while on stage.

The romantic triangle is a bit too back-and-forth-y, despite being in a movie with a runtime of only seventy-three minutes. Still, pacing is not much of an issue. According to the IMDb Trivia page for this movie, the surviving prints of it are missing a reel, but this isn’t noticeable. Another notable thing about this picture is a stunt or two performed by acrobat Alfred Adeline that I won’t spoil the details of here.

Laugh, Clown, Laugh probably needed a bit more of a sinister conclusion than what it ended up with, but, as it stands now, it’s a very good flick. The Trivia page on IMDb insists that Lon Chaney considered this his favorite role, but, then again, the Trivia page for Tell It to the Marines (1926), says that that military drama contained his favorite performance. Which page is to be believed? Regardless of which role “The Man of a Thousand Faces” preferred, both films should be watched by his fans.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

The Ace of Hearts (1921) Review

Director: Wallace Worsley

Genre(s): Crime, Drama, Romance, Thriller

Runtime: 75 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The silent 1921 drama-thriller The Ace of Hearts may have been an attempt to recapture some of the magic from The Penalty (1920), another crime film that also starred Lon Chaney, was directed by Wallace Worsley, and was based on a work by pulp novelist Gouverneur Morris. There may be a reason why this movie isn’t as fondly remembered as The Penalty, but it’s still worth a watch. The story is about a secret society, of which Farallone (Lon Chaney) is a member, that is plotting the killing of a wealthy individual, and the assassin being chosen by the random dealing of cards (ace of hearts gets to carry out the mission).

The Ace of Hearts‘ biggest strength is its atmospheric nature, with many scenes having a strong nocturnal energy. The image of Lon Chaney waiting outside of your apartment window in a nighttime rainstorm is powerful. The picture feels pretty padded-out, even with a running time of only seventy-five minutes, but the feature does build up to a successful climax, even if it has some unsure footing along the way.

This film does have a prominent romantic triangle in it that feels a little silly, but it’s largely forgiven by the time the flick ends. You see, the backroom secret society has one female member – Lilith (Leatrice Joy) – and two of the potential assassins – Farallone and Forrest (John Bowers) – are madly in love her, both wanting a chance to be the hitman in order to show their devotion to “the Cause.” Farallone – Lon Chaney’s character – mostly just stands around looking glum in a ridiculous hairdo.

The Ace of Hearts may not hold up that well when compared to a couple of Lon Chaney’s other movies, like West of Zanzibar (1928) or the aforementioned The Penalty, but, despite an occasionally slow pace, it should have enough merits to make it worth tracking down for fans of “The Man with a Thousand Faces.” It has an interesting story with a nice payoff. Check out the audacious main title sequence, which simply shows the ace of hearts playing card (instead of text) when the title should be shown.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Mr. Wu (1927) Review

Director: William Nigh

Genre(s): Drama, Romance

Runtime: 90 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Lon Chaney was known as “The Man of a Thousand Faces,” being famous for the remarkably different-looking characters he played over the course of his career. One of his more notable visual transformations took place in the 1927 silent melodrama Mr. Wu, where he plays not one, but two, Chinese characters (the titular figure and that person’s aging grandfather). The story of the film is concerned with authoritarian Chinese parent Wu (Lon Chaney) who discovers that his only child, Nang Ping (Renée Adorée), is secretly dating a White man, Basil Gregory (Ralph Forbes).

Part of Mr. Wu deals with the culture clash between the collectivistic East and the individualistic West. Being an American movie from the 1920s, the West, which prides itself on its lack of arranged marriages, comes across looking more sympathetic. The picture also involves Lon Chaney playing two roles in what is now referred to as “yellowface,” which is certainly not “politically correct” by today’s standards.

Even if one can get past the flick’s racial insensitivities, they’ll find a pretty slow-moving film. Yes, there are some nice sets, but the first two acts here can be relatively difficult to get through. There may have been some content that deserved to remain on the cutting room floor. Mercifully, things speed up for the final third, which can actually be a bit suspenseful for reasons that I won’t spoil here.

It’s cool to see a feature where Chaney plays a double role, but, unfortunately, the one of Wu’s grandfather is pretty superfluous. Mr. Wu is mostly your typical tale of lovers from two separate cultures, with the occasional act of violence thrown into the mix to keep the audience’s attention. There are certainly better Lon Chaney movies out there to spend some time with.

My rating is 5 outta 10.

Mockery (1927) Review

Director: Benjamin Christensen

Genre(s): Drama, Romance, War

Runtime: 75 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The 1927 drama Mockery isn’t actor Lon Chaney’s best film, but it is a fairly watchable one. Set during the Russian Civil War, a slow-witted peasant named Sergei (Lon Chaney) must escort a woman – Tatiana Alexandrova (Barbara Bedford) – across the Siberian wastelands to safety, with a love triangle just waiting to break out. This is a silent movie, but it’s told well enough that the lack of sound isn’t an issue.

This picture is mostly concerned with the class relations between the workers/peasants of Russia and the aristocracy desperately clinging to power in the face of revolution. Unfortunately, while the contrasts between the two sides take up a notable amount of screentime, the feature, in the end, doesn’t really have much to say about the matter. This is a melodrama, first and foremost, so displays of naked emotion are valued more than political/economic analysis.

The middle act of Mockery is perhaps the weakest part, but things get back on the rails for the finale. There is some action here, with plenty of soldiers running through the streets and Lon Chaney’s character – Sergei – duking it out with some goons. On the down side, Sergei does a thing or two to cause him to lose the sympathies of the audience during the third act.

As usual, Chaney’s performance cannot be faulted here. It’s just that the film surrounding him isn’t really that compelling. It’s only seventy-five minutes long, so it is manageable, but not that memorable. However, I don’t think that there’s been many easy-to-access flicks made about the Russian Civil War, despite that conflict’s horrendous bloodiness, so Mockery might scratch an itch in that regard.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

He Who Gets Slapped (1924) Review

Director: Victor Sjöström

Genre(s): Drama, Romance

Runtime: 95 minutes (Blu Ray version), 71 minutes (DVD version)

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

With star Lon Chaney showing up as a hideous-looking clown, it would be easy to mistake He Who Gets Slapped for a horror film. However, this silent movie is actually a grotesque drama (similar to other silents like The Man Who Laughs [1928] or West of Zanzibar [1928], the latter of which also stars Chaney) with strong romance elements. The story is about scientist Paul Beaumont (Lon Chaney) who joins the circus as a masochistic clown after his discoveries and his wife, Marie (Ruth King), are stolen from him.

This well-made feature is not held back by the cinematic limitations of the time. It’s still an engaging and poetic picture that intrigues the audience. He Who Gets Slapped has an easily digestible runtime that varies depending on what speed the silent movie is played at. It may not be horror, but it still has an odd, creepy vibe to it. I mean, it does feature dozens of synchronized-dancing clowns, after all.

The second act of this flick does feel a little distracted at first glance. During this segment, the focus is largely shifted away from Chaney’s character and settles on the romance between circus horse-riders Consuelo (Norma Shearer) and Bezano (John Gilbert). It feels “off” at first, but by the time the work’s remarkable climax rolls around, it makes sense.

As far as silent, 1920s melodramas go, this one is very solid. With the occasional abstract touch, it is a film that fans of the silents should try to seek out. Some say that Bela Lugosi can be seen here in a small uncredited role or two. It is supposedly the first Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) movie to have that company’s animal mascot, Leo the Lion, appear before the feature starts. It’s certainly not the only time a lion appears in this movie!

My rating is 7 outta 10.

City Streets (1931) Review

Director: Rouben Mamoulian

Genre(s): Crime, Drama, Romance

Runtime: 83 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The great Gary Cooper is probably best known for his roles in western and war movies, but did you know that he once played a big-city gangster? Yes, that’s right, and the film was City Streets from 1931. A man simply known as “The Kid” (Gary Cooper), who runs a shooting gallery at the circus, is recruited by the mob after his girlfriend, Nan Cooley (Sylvia Sidney), is sent to prison for assisting in a murder.

The most striking aspect of City Streets is its ahead-of-its-time cinematography. It probably won’t wow most modern viewers, but, if you’re accustomed to the often creaky production values of early 1930s cinema, it’s nice to see. Gary Cooper is a delight here, as expected. He looks like a pro slinging around those shooting gallery pistols.

Even though it was named one of the ten best films of 1931 by the National Board of Review, I don’t think that this is one of the stronger mobster movies out there. The Public Enemy (1931), starring grapefruit-swinging James Cagney, was released the same year, and, even though it didn’t make the National Board of Review’s list, it is certainly the more entertaining picture. The problem with City Streets is its anti-climactic ending, which I won’t spoil the details of here.

Sent to theaters during the Pre-Code era of Hollywood (before the enforcement of the Production Code), this flick doesn’t really have very many “goodies” associated with the time period for modern audiences. Overall, it’s a passable crime-drama, but why settle for “passable?” The only real draw for it nowadays is seeing Cooper play a member of organized crime.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

Across the Pacific (1942) Review

Directors: John Huston and Vincent Sherman

Genre(s): Adventure, Romance, Thriller, War

Runtime: 97 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Despite a somewhat deceptive title, Across the Pacific from 1942 is a satisfactory war-time thriller. Set just before the United States’ entry into World War II, disgraced American serviceman Rick Leland (Humphrey Bogart) is forced out of the military for a scandal and decides to take a cruise on a Japanese ship through the Panama Canal to Asia. The boat he’s on is full of shadowy figures (himself included) and blood is bound to be spilled by the time his adventure is finished.

Across the Pacific has a fascinating plot, but it is a slow-moving picture. It’s pulpy and noirish, sure, but it feels a tad longer than its 97-minute runtime. Some modern viewers may also be turned off by the feature’s war-time depiction of Japanese people. Fortunately, the film is blessed with one huge asset: Humphrey Bogart. That guy makes everything look effortlessly cool, and his performance in this movie is no exception.

Speaking of Bogie, it’s fun to see him in full-on action hero mode here. The action doesn’t really kick in until the third act, but, when it does, it redeems the flick. The actual scenes of physical mayhem are adequately staged, but they’re extra-amusing considering that they are found in a movie released in 1942. Bogart very briefly unleashing his inner John Rambo is hard to pass up on.

Most of Across the Pacific is a romance-heavy thriller, but the last third makes a natural-feeling transition to more adventure-oriented fare. It’s far from being a great movie, but Bogart fans won’t want to miss it. It’s interesting to note that his character in this picture is called “Rick,” the same name as his role in Casablanca (1942), which was released the same year.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

Cloak and Dagger (1946) Review

Director: Fritz Lang

Genre(s): Adventure, Romance, Thriller, War

Runtime: 106 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

During World War II, American scientist Alvah Jesper (Gary Cooper) is recruited by the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) to head to Europe to spy on Nazi Germany’s nuclear weapons program. Cloak and Dagger was directed by Fritz Lang, who had previously helmed the science-fiction masterpiece Metropolis (1927) and the serial killer thriller M (1931) and would later direct the excellent film noir The Big Heat (1953), and starred cinema icon Gary Cooper. Sounds like a dream team collaboration. How does it stack up?

This film is at its best in moments of action and suspense. The surprisingly hard-hitting hand-to-hand combat scenes are the highlight, featuring a Liam Neeson-esque throat punch or two. The final shootout doesn’t fare quite as well. In comparison, it feels lazily shot at times and lacks a distinct culmination. There are also some impressive espionage-related sequences that don’t deal with violence directly.

What keeps Cloak and Dagger back from greatness is its romantic subplot. The movie really hits a brick wall here. The scenes between Gary Cooper’s character and Italian resistance fighter Gina (Lilli Palmer) don’t add much to the final product, although some have commented that they put a human face on the toll of partisan warfare and fascist occupation. The pace would be much tighter if these scenes were written out of the screenplay.

At the end of the day, Cloak and Dagger is something less than the sum of its parts. When focused on the details of Gary Cooper’s mission, this war-time adventure-thriller is pretty memorable. It’s the romance that threatens to sabotage the end result. Still, it’s a watchable enough war picture for fans of Cooper or Fritz Lang.

My rating is 6 outta 10.