Monday, June 21, 2021

James Stewart Sings--and Plays the Accordion--in Night Passage

Night Passage (1957) should have been the sixth Western starring James Stewart and directed by Anthony Mann. The duo's earlier collaborations included some of the finest Westerns ever made (e.g., Winchester '73, Bend of the River). However, according to Jeanine Basinger's biography Anthony Mann, the director withdrew from the picture at the last minute because he felt the script was weak. Mann's decision created a rift between James Stewart and him, and the pair never worked together again. Journeyman director James Neilson took over the movie.

The opening scenes of Night Passage play like a classic Mann Western. Stewart stars as Grant McLaine, who makes his living by playing the accordion after being fired by the railroad five years earlier. It turns out that Grant, who was responsible for the railroad's security, let an outlaw named The Utica Kid ride away. Now, however, the railroad's boss (Jay C. Flippen) wants to re-hire Grant to stop a gang that's been stealing the company's payrolls on a regular basis.

De Wilde, Stewart, and accordion.
As in earlier Mann Westerns, colorful characters abound. Miss Vittles (Olive Carey) is a sly old lady who follows around gold prospectors like a mobile chuckwagon business. Paul Fix plays a worker sandwiched between his wife (Ellen Corby) and one of the "professional ladies" in the railroad camp. Brandon De Wilde, who played the youth Joey in Shane, plays another Joey here.

Alas, most of these characters are quickly forgotten when Grant agrees to guard the latest payroll train. To no one's surprise, the outlaw gang attacks the train, but can't find the money. So, they kidnap the railroad boss's wife and hold her for a ransom of $10,000. Grant, who has cleverly hidden the payroll with Joey, gets hit on the head and left for dead. He's just fine, though, and sets out to recover the money and free the hostage.

Night Passage is a solid Western, but it's also not a very memorable one. Although written by veteran Western screenwriter Borden Chase, it lacks the overarching themes (e.g., redemption, family, civilization, etc.) that elevated the Mann-Stewart films. There are also too many characters jammed into the story, leaving some of the cast stuck with stereotypes--in particular, Dianne Foster as the "good girl" and Dan Duryea's as the psychotic outlaw leader.

Audie Murphy as Utica.
Then, there is the miscasting of Audie Murphy as The Utica Kid and James Stewart's accordion. Murphy was at the peak of his acting career, so his hiring probably made sense from a box office perspective. However, The Utica Kid is an ambitious, quick-witted cynic with conflicted morals. That clashes with Murphy's established earnest on-screen persona and he lacks the acting chops to pull off the role. It's also interesting to note that he doesn't appear until 35 minutes into the 90-minute movie.

That brings us to the aforementioned accordion. James Stewart plays the accordion (as he did as a youth) and sings in Night Passage (although his accordion playing was dubbed over by a professional). If you want to hear Stewart crooning songs like "You Can't Get Far Without a Railroad" (with music by Dimitri Tiomkin), then Night Passage is required viewing. To be honest, the legendary star can carry a tune, though it's understandable why he didn't become a singer. The accordion, though, is another matter. Stewart's character has to lug it all over the Wild West--on his horse, on the train, on his back. The only reason seems to be so he can play a familiar family tune for Utica--who turns out to be his brother.

The challenge with a movie like Night Passage is imagining how good it could have been. With Anthony Mann's directing, a key casting change, a better screenplay, and less accordion playing, it might have ranked with the best Westerns of the 1950s.

Monday, June 14, 2021

The Friends of Eddie Coyle

The 1970s was a fantastic decade for gritty, urban crime dramas. Audiences were treated to fine films like The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, The Seven-Ups, The French ConnectionDirty Harry, and, of course, The Godfather. A lesser-known movie that could be included in that group is Peter Yates' The Friends of Eddie Coyle, featuring Robert Mitchum in his best performance of the '70s (though he's also excellent in The Yakuza).

Richard Jordan as an ATF agent.
Mitchum plays Eddie "Fingers" Coyle, a mid-tier criminal in Boston who's facing a 3-5 year prison sentence for driving a truck of stolen goods. A weary middle-aged thug with a family, Eddie will do almost anything to avoid another jail term. Looking for a way out, he meets with an ambitious ATF agent (Richard Jordan) who promises to "do something" for him if Eddie will turn informant.

There's not a lot of plot to The Friends of Eddie Coyle, which is more concerned with its characters and its portrait of the Boston underworld. Mitchum portrays Eddie as an experienced criminal, aware of his limitations, who operates within his own ethics. For example, Eddie is willing to snitch on a gun dealer, but he won't provide evidence on the man who hired him to drive the truck. You just don't squeal on the guy that gives you a job.

Steven Keats as a gun dealer.
Mitchum receives exceptional support from his castmates, especially Jordan, Peter Boyle, and Steven Keats. Jordan portrays his ATF agent as an opportunist whose morals are marginally better than the bad guys he pursues. While Peter Boyle appears in just a handful of scenes, he commands the screen as the criminal equivalent of a double agent--he sells out his fellow felons to Jordan while concurrently working as a hired killer for clients like "The Man." However, the film's best supporting performance belongs to Steven Keats, who plays a bottom-of-the-heap gun dealer named Jackie Brown. An ambitious hustler, Jackie is smarter than he first appears--though that doesn't save him in the end. Surprisingly, Keats' work didn't further his career in terms of major movies, though he was a busy TV actor. As you may surmised, Quentin Tarantino borrowed the name "Jackie Brown" for his 1997 movie.

Director Peter Yates lovingly captures the bars, dives, bowling alleys, and deserted buildings where Eddie and his fellow criminals operate. He imbues the film with an urban urgency that lingers after the final scene. (My only issue with the settings is one that's not unique to Eddie Coyle--I'm always flummoxed when characters discuss crimes in public places where they could be easily overheard!) Yates also inserts two tense bank robbery sequences that nicely offset the film's more dialogue-driven scenes. Still, it's one of those talky scenes that provides a memorable exchange between Mitchum and Keats, in which Eddie tries to share his experiences with the younger "operator."

The Friends of Eddie Coyle had been on my "watch list" for many years. I only recently discovered a DVD copy at a local library. I was concerned that my expectations would lead to disappointment--but that was not the case. It's a well-written, well-acted crime drama that falls just short of being included among the best of the 1970s. Still, that's high praise considering the quality of crime genre films during that decade.

Monday, June 7, 2021

Burt Reynolds' Unofficial Remake of a Film Noir Classic

Burt Reynolds as Sharky.
After placing a civilian in harm's way, big city detective Tom Sharky is "demoted" from narcotics to vice. It's intended to be a humdrum assignment, but that changes quickly when Sharky (Burt Reynolds) confiscates a list of seven coded phone numbers from an affluent pimp. One number belongs to a murder victim; Sharky is directed take no action on a second number. That's the one that interests him, of course, and it belongs to a high-class prostitute named Dominoe (Rachel Ward).

Sharky and a fellow vice detective bug Dominoe's apartment and learn she is having an affair with a politician running for state governor. Convinced there is a link to the earlier murder, Sharky conducts 24-hour surveillance of Dominoe's apartment. He also begins to follow her and slowly develops an infatuation with the beautiful call girl. That comes to an end, though, when she answers the doorbell one morning and is shot in the face with a shotgun.

If you don't already recognize the plot to a famous 1940s film noir, then stop reading this review now because spoilers lie ahead.

Although it was based on a 1978 novel by William Diehl, Sharky's Machine borrows its premise largely from Otto Preminger's Laura (1944). In both films, a detective becomes obsessed with a beautiful woman who is believed to be murdered--only to turn out to be alive. The key difference is that Dana Andrews' detective in Laura falls for a woman he believes is dead. At least, Sharky's obsession is about a "real" woman.

Rachel Ward as Dominoe.
Sharky's Machine could have been a dark mystery with disturbing overtones. Let's be honest, Dana Andrews' character in Laura wasn't that far removed from James Stewart's over-the-edge protagonist in Hitchcock's Vertigo. The problem with Sharky's Machine is that its star--who also directed--doesn't know how to make anything but a Burt Reynolds movie. With his trademark mustache and sly smile, Burt portrays Sharky as a conventional detective who plays tough with the boys and tough-tender with the ladies. The scene where a coy Sharky flirts with Dominoe and then carries her to bed is painful to watch.

Bernie Casey as Sharky's pal.
Reynolds surrounds himself with a capable supporting cast, but gives most of them little to do. It's sad to see a fine actor like Brian Keith relegated to a bit part (but it's also likely he wasn't in demand at that point in his career). Rachel Ward is gorgeous as Dominoe but struggles in a poorly-written part. She showed off her acting prowess two years later in The Thornbirds miniseries. As Reynolds' vice squad partner, Bernie Casey (Gargoyles) delivers the most believable performance.

To his credit, Reynolds tries to tweak his standard formula by setting the action in Atlanta (instead of NYC or Chicago) and incorporating a jazz soundtrack with songs by Sarah Vaughan, Doc Severinsen, and others. Personally, I didn't care for the score, but I chalk that up solely to personal taste.

Burt Reynolds initially asked John Boorman to direct, but the filmmaker was still working on Excalibur. Based on his earlier success in the crime movie genre (see Point Blank), I am sure Boorman could have delivered a far superior film. It's easy to speculate on what Sharky's Machine might have been. The reality is that Reynolds' variation on Laura is nothing more than a passable time-filler if you've got nothing else to do.