Cinema Station

The Hawkins Brothers: Crime Storytellers

October 28, 2010
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For a moviegoer, sometimes unfamiliar names become familiar. During the credits of the Andre De Toth directed Hidden Fear, the name John Hawkins struck a bell but I ignored it. I didn’t think about the name until I started Budd Boetticher’s The Killer is Loose and there it was again in the opening credits.

The very first time I saw the name was months ago: another De Toth picture, Crime Wave. The link the between the three movies isn’t only a name; it’s a consistency in craft, in the tiny character details that elevate these three crime pictures above most others.

John Hawkins, of whom I can find little about, was a writer and producer. He produced Bonanza and other than the movies, wrote for such television shows as The Fugitive and The 87th Precinct series. Alongside his name is his brother’s: Ward Hawkins. They each collaborated on Crime Wave and The Killer is Loose. From what I can gather, both of these films where based on stories by the brothers (they were frequently published in the Saturday Evening Post).

Both films had a screenwriter other than the Hawkins (Harold Medford for The Killer is Loose and three writers for Crime Wave). Although sometimes it’s hard to pick out the parties responsible for the exceptional qualities in good work (perhaps it was the director with an idea on set, or the actor), the name Hawkins keeps repeating itself at the beginning and end of good crime pictures.

The Killer is Loose is an odd cop story. The lead, played by Joseph Cotten, accidentaly shoots the wife of a bank robber played by Wendell Correy. He’s no ordinary bank robber, and no ordinary killer as the poster suggests. He’s timid, introverted; in the army we learn that he was constantly made fun of. Still, he involves himself in crime and the punishment is not his own but his wife’s.


Wendell Corey

The outcome of the innocent murder: Cotten made a mistake and Correy goes to jail. But before he goes, he swears to take the life of Cotten’s wife and when he escapes sometime later, the picture really takes off. That’s all I’ll say about the plot. The picture, like many in the gallery of second-run crime movies, is fast, sharp, and much smarter than most A-pictures. The characters’ actions are fresh, unpredictable, and downright complex. Budd Boetticher was a great director, not only of Westerns. Whatever his strengths, I can’t help but credit the “story” men behind this one: the Hawkins brothers.


Timothy Carey, front and center

Crime Wave, which I focused on before in an article about its director, is a little crime gem too. A tale of the burden of being an ex-crook at its core, the movie comprises police-procedural, heist, and kidnapping in a killer plot. The cast highlights are Sterling Hayden and Timothy Carey. Hayden plays a tough cop about as good as anyone could and Carey plays the ultimate scene-stealing psycho (he may have been the best scene-stealer ever). Again, De Toth was a terrific director but it’s not only the starkness of the pace and lighting that make Crime Wave a great picture; it’s the root of the movie, the core, where it came from.

Unlike the previous two, the movie Hidden Fear was not based on a story by Ward Hawkins. From the available information, it seems the screenplay was written by both Andre De Toth and John Hawkins. Like the other two, this is a tight little crime movie. The basic plot involves an American cop (John Payne) trying to clear his sister’s name after she gets mixed up with a murder in Denmark. Somewhere along the way, counterfeit and other such crimes become involved.


John Payne, a Pulp machine in my mind, here with two broads in Western mode

On one level, Hidden Fear feels like an early entry in the French New Wave. The lighting is almost all natural, the cutting abrupt and ragged but effectively so, the whole thing stripped of Hollywood exaggerations. It is a lean, mean picture but what really gives it guts are the characters and dialog. Payne’s American cop is Mickey-Spillane tough. In one great scene from Hawkins and De Toth, he slaps his sister around to find out the truth. The Danish cop enters the interrogation room and tells him, “This isn’t the way we do things here.” Payne, lacking all emotion, responds, “Sometimes it’s the only way.” He parades through the picture as a tall, strong statue, a perfect machine of pulp and Hawkins’ script is his backbone. Outlined with tons of great characters: a sultry blonde played by Anne Neyland and a backstabbing ruthless villain played by Alexander Knox. Hidden Fear climaxes with a great, minimal car chase and a harsh ending that conveys the same bizarre since of victory and tragedy as Hawkins’ ending for The Killer is Loose.


Alexander Knox

I’ll keep an eye out for John and Ward Hawkins from now on. And because their names were once unfamiliar to me and have now become synonymous with great crime writing, I’ll look for others like the Hawkins, buried in the credits of great forgotten cinema.

-TM

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The Big Knife – or: Hollywood on Hollywood

October 5, 2010
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The Big Knife – or: Hollywood on Hollywood

Over the years and decades of its existence Hollywood has made any number of films attempting in one way or another to dramatize itself, its industry, its lifestyles along with stories of those who seek the spotlight of the motion picture camera as a way of making them successful and famous or simply justifying their existence on earth. All of these films have been flawed one way or another. So much so that it was touted as conventional wisdom that “Hollywood was capable of examining just about anything but itself”. The search for “The great Hollywood movie” appears to be as elusive as “The great American novel” that was talked about so often years ago. Some writers even claimed that they had scaled that particular Everest. But today that ambition has pretty much been forgotten. That seems to be the fate of “The great Hollywood movie” as well.  At least two novels challenged for the title of “great Hollywood novel”. They are What Makes Sammy Run? (1941) and The Disenchanted (1950). Both were written by Bud Schulberg (1914-2009) who was the son ofB.P. Schulberg the head of Paramount Pictures.  Both books were best sellers but thus far neither has ever been adapted for the big screen. On stage and on TV yes, but not on the big screen.

In considering the films about itself that Hollywood has produced the two that stand head and shoulders above the rest (at least in my mind) are: Sunset Boulevard (1950) and Singing in the Rain (1953). Both are considered masterpieces of their particular genre. Somewhat below there are: The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) and A Star is Born (1954). Then on a third tier are a group of films that don’t quite deliver all the goods but are interesting nevertheless. In chronological order they are: What Price Hollywood (1932), A Star is Born (1937), The Star (1950), Man of a Thousand Faces (1957), The Goddess (1959) Inside Daisy Clover (1965), Day of the Locust (1975), The Last Tycoon (1976), Barton Fink (1991), The Player (1992), and Ed Wood (1992). A couple of wild card titles would include In a Lonely Place (1952) and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969). But to me those films belong in a category by themselves. Wonderfully so.

 

The film under consideration now is The Big Knife (1955) directed by Robert (The Dirty Dozen) Aldrich and adapted by James Poe from a play by Clifford Odets. The story concerns the fate of Charlie Castle (Jack Palance), a man of humble beginnings who has become a top Hollywood box office star, and who apparently has succumbed to all the material trappings of his profession; the big house with servants, adoring fans and the availability of any number of women at the snap of a finger. Charlie is married to and is still in love with Marion (Ida Lupino), a serious and intelligent woman who is fed up with their life in tinsel town and would rather end their marriage than endure another year of it. Complicating matters is the fact that the dictatorial studio head Stanley Hoff (Rod Steiger) is insisting that he sign a lucrative 7 year contract with his studio. And if Charlie refuses the studio will release information that they covered up about a DUI incident involving Charlie where a child was killed.

 

The play by Odets, who spent much of his career in Hollywood working mostly as a screenwriter and an occasional director, appears to be trying to make a large statement about movie stardom and Hollywood success, how it saps the creative spirit and through its false values destroys the very souls of its inhabitants. The dramatic event revolves around watching Charlie struggling to save his own. And all the usual suspects show up….The predatory gossip columnist (Ilka Chase) a combination Louella Parsons, Shelia Graham, Hedda Hopper and others. Sample dialogue; (To Charlie) “Some of you seem to forget this town has to keep its skirts clean…A scandal is not forgotten if I choose to revive it.” (To a studio underling) “Shut up. I want my news from the horse’s mouth, not its tail!”

The long suffering agent ;( Everett Sloane) “No matter how you slice it up there’s never enough time in Hollywood.”…The adulterous wife of a publicist, Connie Bliss (Jean Hagen). “I like snug, draped bedrooms with locked doors so I can be my naked self, as you desire me….You’re hurting me love. But I’m a bad girl, I wish I could say I didn’t like it”…The cynical studio factotum Smiley Coy (Wendell Corey); “Ideals, kid? Nowadays? A lost crusade.”  And in response to the question: What do you think about women? He says; “There’s no satisfying them. Like kids, they’re not of our world. I like them for the tricks they can do Their so-called specialties.”…. The abused starlet Dixie Evans (Shelley Winters). “If I take one more drink I’ll see a snake. …Although I’d rather see a snake than a Hollywood producer…They hire girls like me to entertain the visiting sales force.”…The tyrannical studio head; “Who are you? Petty aristocracy because the female admissions want to sleep with you? I’ll break you like I broke Wally Cole. He was a bigger star. You have pissed away a kingdom today.”

 

One could quote dialogue from the film all day, the good and sometimes terrific, the bad and the clumsy simply to illustrate the literary ambition behind The Big Knife in its effort to tell the definitive Hollywood story. What the film does achieve to a great extent is reflecting the love/hate relationship Odets had with the place. And as a result the whole thing comes up like a poison pen letter to Hollywood and the industry. Charlie Castle at one point observes; “California, think of it. The place where an honest apple tree won’t grow.”

The acting throughout is big and vivid in the 1950s method and semi-method style. And everyone in the cast is up to the task. The directorial concept appears to favor retaining the concentration of the plays one set location (The Castle home) abetted by a few exteriors (The swimming pool, a studio sound stage, a brief glimpse of a party next door and a shot of Marion at the beach). But the play wasn’t “opened up” much. The camera doesn’t even travel upstairs of the Castle home where the most dramatic event of the story takes place. We’re just told about it. There are big confrontation scenes that just explode with fury. And a few quiet ones that make you wish they were better or more lovingly staged. The worst thing about The Big Knife is its heavy handed need to indict Hollywood and all it represents. Odets play and the screenplay practically scream it at you. And the result is it denies the film any moderation and nuance. The whole thing often comes up like a rant. It also has some of the most pretentious sounding dialogue heard anywhere. Most of it spoken by Hank Teagle (Wesley Addy) , a melancholy novelist who’s leaving Hollywood to write a novel about; “How a man can become a popular movie star without reflecting the average (man) in one way or another.”… Someplace else he says; “Half idealism is the peritonitis of the soul. America is full of it.” The character comes up like the author’s stand-in mouth piece and Charlie Castle’s conscience. In another exchange he says to Charlie “If you wrestle (with your integrity) you might win a blessing.” To which Charlie says; “I’ll miss you Hank. Write your book and make it scandalous. Wire me for money anytime you need it. Someone has to complete the work he was born to do.”

The best thing about the film is the passion its makers (Writers, actors, director and producer etc.) invest in their endeavor. It charges the screen with several bursts of energy that is quite bracing.  Many of its scenes feel like they’re about to break out of their cinematic confines at any minute. And that is something to be treasured. I can’t say that it’s a good film or a bad one. That has to do with your mood, your tolerance for the kind of high flown dialogue Odets likes to throw around and your appetite for stories that have to do with the pitfalls of success. The Big Knife is a film I go back to from time to time. Sometimes it annoys me, other times I’m amused by it while at other times I become engaged with some of the questions the screenplay is wrestling with. This is a film I always wish was better but for what it is I still like it, faults and all.

-GE