Spring in a Small Town (1948)

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Directed by Mu Fei
Written by Tianji Li
1948/China
Wenhua Film Company
First viewing/Youtube
#216 of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die

“You can cut all the flowers but you cannot keep Spring from coming.” ― Pablo Neruda

This story of unconsummated love was not aided by a scratchy print.

Unfortunately I am unclear on the character names.  A woman has the same routine day after day.  She goes to a nearby town to buy groceries and herbal medicine then walks home on the ruined city wall.  Then she takes the medicine to her husband, often without exchanging words with him, and after that takes up her needlework.  The husband is suffering from tuberculosis but, more importantly, has been severely depressed since the war destroyed the main house on his property.  He does little but worry about his health. Husband and wife sleep in separate rooms.  The husband’s teenage sister lives with them.

Then one day, a friend that the husband has not seen for ten years comes for a visit.  The visitor is now a medical doctor.  He traveled all over China during the long war.  Unbeknownst to anyone, he is also the first and only love of his friend’s wife.

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The two lovers are magnetically attracted to each other.  They cannot stay apart but neither can they bring themselves to betray the husband, who seems to have returned to life due to his friend’s visit.  When the husband finally figures out what is going on, he takes action that will bring matters to a head.

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This has been voted the best Chinese film ever made.  It certainly had its moments but it also seemed to drag on interminably at only 103 minutes.  I opted to watch on YouTube rather than buy the DVD and was stuck with scratchy print and iffy sound.  Other reviews I have read suggest the DVD available in the US may not be much better.  The below trailer seems to show the BFI version may be the one to see.

Trailer to BFI DVD

 

The Snake Pit (1948)

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Directed by Anatole Litvak
Written by Frank Partos and Millen Brand from a novel by Mary Jane Ward
1948/USA
Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
Repeat viewing/Netflix rental
#219 of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die

Virginia Stuart Cunningham: I’ll tell you where it’s gonna end, Miss Somerville… When there are more sick ones than well ones, the sick ones will lock the well ones up.

I didn’t remember liking this very much.  Imagine my surprise to see how great it was on the second viewing.

The story begins with a confused Virginia Stuart (Olivia de Havilland) trying to figure out where she is and where the voices she is hearing are coming from.  At first she thinks she may be in prison.  The audience soon discovers that this is actually the state mental hospital.

Virginia’s psychiatrist Dr. Kit (Leo Genn) interviews her husband Robert to get a history. The film then segues into flashback.  Virginia had been an aspiring writer in Chicago.  The couple met when Robert, who was then working as an editor, rejected a story she submitted.  The two met again at lunch in the company cafe and start dating.  Virginia didn’t talk about her past and seemed grateful not to answer any questions.  She disappeared one night and Robert moved to New York for a new job.  Then just as abruptly as she left, Virginia reappeared.  They started seeing each other again.

Virginia initially dodged all of Robert’s marriage proposals, then out of nowhere she brought up the subject herself.  They marry in haste.  After a few months, Virginia started having trouble sleeping and spent a lot of time staring out the window.  When Robert insisted on taking her to a doctor, she freaked out.

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Virginia can’t remember anything, including the fact that she is married, and is unaware of her surroundings.  Since Richard had little knowledge of Virginia’s past, Dr. Kik decides the best course of treatment to break through to her is shock therapy.  We see poor terrified, confused Virginia undergo a series of treatments not knowing whether she is being executed for some crime she cannot recall.  But the therapy works and Dr. Kik begins the long process of psychoanalysis.  Treatment is not easy and Virginia suffers a couple of setbacks that send her back to square one.  But progress is eventually made and Virginia starts gradually to get well.

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The 40’s were the heyday of Freudianism in films, but the Snake Pit is really mostly free of psychobabble.  We look at someone who is truly ill and needs help.  The film concentrates on the obstacles to getting helped, despite the good intentions of the majority of the staff, in the overcrowded, underfunded state mental health system.  Where it falls short is in Virginia’s rather abrupt breakthrough and the pat Oedipal explanation for all her problems.

Olivia de Havilland is phenomenal in this movie.  I believed her the whole time.  I forgot she was a movie star and just felt so sorry for her.  Her character tries so hard to please everybody despite having no clue what they really wanted from her.  I think she missed the Best Actress Oscar solely because she received the honor two years before . Litvak masterfully captures life in the mental hospital in all its bizarre detail and claustrophobia.  Recommended.

The Snake Pit won the Academy Award for Best Sound, Recording.  It was nominated for Academy Awards in the categories of Best Picture; Best Actress; Best Director; Best Writing, Screenplay; and Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture.

Trailer

Quartet (1948)

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Directed by Ken Annakin, Arthur Crabtree, Harold French, and Ralph Smart
Written by W. Somerset Maugham and R.C. Sherriff
1948/UK
Gainsborough Pictures
First viewing/Amazon Prime

 

Himself, Host: In my twenties, the critics said I was brutal. In my thirties, they said I was flippant; in my forties, they said I was cynical; in my fifties they said I was competent – and then, in my sixties, they said I was superficial.

I find some of my best surprises on Amazon Prime.

This is an anthology film which brings four short stories by Somerset Maugham to the screen.

The first is “The Facts of Life”.  A nineteen-year-old is going abroad on his own for the first time to play at a tennis tournament in Monte Carlo.  His father (Basil Radford) warns him against gambling, women, and lending money.  We find out what happens when the son disregards every bit of this advice.

Next comes my favorite, “The Alien Corn”.  A young man of good family (Dirk Bogarde) announces that he has decided to study to become a concert pianist instead of going to Oxford as expected.  His father and girlfriend (Honor Blackman) offer him a deal.  They will agree to two years of piano study.  If, at the end of that time, an expert does not think he has potential to turn professional he will give up and go to Oxford.  The outcome is not what anyone hoped for.

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Dirk Bogarde in “The Alien Corn”

In “The Kite”, a young man is a wizard at designing high-flying kites.  He falls in love and decides to marry to the mighty disapproval of his mother (Hermione Baddely) and father.  The new wife is jealous of all the time her husband spends flying kites with his family.  In a fit of pique, she destroys his experimental masterpiece.  The couple separates and the man is repeatedly thrown in jail for failing to pay support.  This is the most comic of the stories.  Much of the fun is in the resolution.

The final story is the longest.  In “The Colonel’s Lady”, a stuffy middle-aged man finds out that his wife is a poet.  Furthermore, her book of poetry becomes a best-seller,  The husband can’t find time to read the book until he is told how steamy it is.  When he does, the old adulterer is appalled to think that his dowdy wife could have any such thoughts.

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The colonel gets precious little sympathy from his mistress (Linden Travers) in “The Colonel’s Lady”

I liked this a whole lot.  The acting is superb and each of the stories has an interesting twist.  They last long enough to let you care about the characters but don’t wear out their welcome.  Recommended.  The film is also currently available on YouTube.

Easter Parade (1948)

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Directed by Charles Walters
Written by Sidney Sheldon, Frances Goodrich, and Albert Hackett
1948/USA
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
First viewing/Netflix rental

 

Oh, I could write a sonnet about your easter bonnet,/ And of the girl I’m taking to the easter parade. – “Easter Parade”, lyrics by Irving Berlin

This is pretty average when you consider it’s a collaboration between Fed Astaire, Judy Garland, and Irving Berlin.  There are flashes of inspiration however.

Don Hewes (Astaire) has a ballroom dancing act with girlfriend Nadine Hale (Ann Miller). Nadine is sweet on Don’s wealthy buddy Jonathan Harrow III (Peter Lawford).  Nadine abruptly announces that she has signed a contract to star in a Broadway show, leaving Don holding the bag on the duo’s contract.  He sets out to prove that he can teach anybody to do what Nadine did and picks Hannah Brown (Garland) out of the chorus line in a small club.

But small-town girl Hannah is nothing like the showy Nadine and does not know her right foot from her left.  In fact, Don finds it impossible to train her in the old act.  It is not until he decides to change the material that the team can hit the big time.

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In the meantime, Hannah falls in love with the all-business Don.  Jonathan is in love with her but she is having none of it.  After a while Don seems to reciprocate Hannah’s affections but complications arise when Don accepts Nadine’s invitation to dance at a celebration after their show.

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You certainly won’t want to watch this for the scintillating story.  In fact, I would say this is more pedestrian than most musicals.  But the thing is jam packed with musical numbers of varying impact.  Toward the end, Astaire dances brilliantly to “Stepping Out with My Baby” and both stars clown memorably to the often anthologized “A Couple of Swells”.  It’s always a treat to see Miller tap as well.  I wonder who decided that Peter Lawford could sing?

Easter Parade won the Academy Award for Best Music, Scoring of a Musical Picture.

Trailer

Clip – “A Couple of Swells”

Hamlet (1948)

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Directed by Laurence Olivier
Written by William Shakespeare
1948/UK
Two Cities Films
Repeat viewing/Amazon Instant

 

[first lines] Narrator: … This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind.

You couldn’t ask for a better traditional version of Hamlet than this one.  The acting is very big and stagey but I think that’s the point.

Hamlet Prince of Denmark (Laurence Olivier) is distraught after the death of his father the King, supposedly of snakebite. and the rapid marriage of his mother Gertrude to his uncle Claudius who now sits on his father’s throne.  Then his father’s ghost appears to him and asks him to avenge his murder, which was orchestrated by Claudius.  Hamlet promises to comply .  He dithers about it though, behaving very strangely and becoming suicidal at one point.

still-of-laurence-olivier-and-jean-simmons-in-hamlet-(1948)-large-picturePolonius, advisor to the King, believes Hamlet has gone mad from heartbreak at rejection by Polonius’s daughter Ophelia (Jean Simmons).  In fact, Hamlet takes out his rage at his mother by lashing out at Ophelia. He confronts his mother for her role in his father’s murder and during the encounter stabs Polonius who is hiding behind a curtain.  Grief drives Ophelia mad and she commits suicide.

Laertes comes home from France determined to avenge his father and sister.  He plots with Claudius to arrange Hamlets death by poisoning during a fencing match.  Things go terribly wrong, leading to a suitably tragic and bloody finish.

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Hamlet features far fewer innovations that Olivier’s earlier Henry VIII but is still a powerfully effective adaptation of the play.  One idea that works well is turning all of Hamlet’s many soliloquies into internal monologues.  The acting is excellent in the trained Shakespearean mode excelled at by the British.   I always forget just how many English sayings originate from this play.  Recommended for Shakespeare lovers.

Hamlet won Academy Awards in the categories of Best Picture; Best Actor; Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Black-and-White; and Best Costumes, Black-and-White.  It was nominated in the categories of Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Simmons); Best Director; and Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture.  These were first-time wins for an adaptation of a Shakespearean play and of an actor who directed himself. This was the first film in which Hammer horror stalwarts Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing appeared together, both in minor roles.

Clip – Hamlet’s soliloquy – “To Be or Not To Be”

State of the Union (1948)

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Directed by Frank Capra
Written by Anthony Vieller and Myles Connolly from a play by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse
1948/USA
Liberty Films
First viewing/Netflix rental

 

Jim Conover: …the most beautiful plank in your husband’s platform.

Mary Matthews: That’s a heck of a thing to call a woman!

Capra made a very similar story in Mr. Deeds Went to Town and that’s the film to see.  Nevertheless, this one has Tracy and Hepburn in their prime and a great performance by a young Angela Lansbury.

Grant Matthews (Spencer Tracy) has a made a fortune in the aviation business.  He is a straight talker and a Republican loyalist.  Lately, he has separated from his loving wife Mary (Katharine Hepburn) and two children and is carrying on with Kay Thorndyke (Angela Lansbury).  Kay is the daughter of a master Republican kingmaker and has inherited his newspaper.  She thinks Grant would make a great President.  She sells his candidacy to campaign strategist Jim Conover (Adolphe Menjou).  Conover advises that if Grant is to be nominated  he must hide his affair with Kay and hit the campaign trail with his wife and kids.  Grant is intrigued with the idea of being President but not totally convinced he wants the job.  He does agree to go on a speaking tour with Mary to test the waters.

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Mary is ecstatic when Grant calls for her, thinking he wants to end the separation.  Although she soon finds out the real reason for their reunion, Mary holds on because she believes in Grant and because the spark between them is not totally dead.  But the free-wheeling Grant is not allowed to speak the truth as he sees it and Mary becomes disgusted with the maneuvering behind the scenes in the campaign.  With Van Johnson as a speechwriter.

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This is an amazingly topical movie, even naming the political parties and the real Republican contenders for the 1948 Presidential nomination.  Back then, nominations were really decided at the Convention and not a foregone conclusion determined in the primaries as now.  There’s a lot of trading of Cabinet appointments for political support going on.

So it’s an interesting window into 1948 politics and certainly Tracy and Hepburn sparkle. The dialogue is quite stagey though and the film just does not have the energy or quirky supporting cast of Capra’s earlier works.  It’s quite a comedown after It’s a Wonderful Life. My favorite part was Angela Lansbury’s performance.  She is cold as ice even at age 23 and presages her fantastic portrayal of Mother in The Manchurian Candidate.

Trailer

Johnny Belinda (1948)

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Directed by Jean Negulesco
Written by Irma von Cube and Alan Vincent from the play by Elmer Harris
1948/USA
Warner Bros.
First viewing/Amazon Instant

Aggie McDonald: It’s hard to be born and it’s hard to die.

This had a bit more moralizing than I like but is a solid and sometimes beautiful film. I thought Jane Wyman deserved her Academy Award.

Dr. Robert Richardson’s (Lew Ayers) wife has left him for another man.  He is still recovering from this blow and moves to an isolated, rural island off the coast of Nova Scotia for the “simple life”.  He finds life is anything but as the island is full of petty jealousy and gossip.  He gradually builds up a practice.  His beautiful young housekeeper Stella (Jan Sterling) has a crush on him but he is completely oblivious.  Stella has recently inherited some money and is being courted by burly, bullying fisherman Locky McCormick.

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One day, Aggie MacDonald (Agnes Moorhead) rushes in asking for help for a cow which is having a difficult calving.  Stella tells Richardson that nobody has anything to do with the MacDonalds but the doctor is always ready to help.  On his visit to the farm, he meets Aggie’s bother Black (Charles Bickford) and his daughter Belinda (Wyman).  Belinda has been deaf since the age of one and cannot speak.  She works hard on the farm and keeps track of all the orders for flour from their mill.  Her family and everyone else on the island treat her as if she were retarded calling her “The Dummy”.  Richardson, who has had prior experience with the deaf, makes it his mission to teach her. She proves to be a willing and diligent student who picks up sign language and lip reading rapidly.

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Stella is very jealous of Richardson’s attentions to Belinda.  Then Lockey starts eying the newly cleaned up deaf girl.  Richardson eventually takes Belinda into town for a thorough examination by an ear specialist.  The specialist discovers that Belinda is pregnant. Her family is brought to supporting her during her pregnancy and does not blame Richardson.  However, the town gossip looks likely to drive Richardson out of town, further impoverish the MacDonalds, and jeopardize Belinda’s custody of the child.

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I don’t know why the screenwriters had to put a lot of little speeches in Lew Ayres’s mouth.  We can see for ourselves the damage done to Belinda by the attitude that because she can’t hear she can’t do anything else.  It would have been more effective to just let us come to our own conclusions about the obvious injustices that permeate this movie.

That said, I liked the depiction of life on the island and the acting a lot.  Agnes Moorehead is especially good and Jane Wyman is really touching with her big brown eyes.  The cinematography is beautiful and I enjoyed the film overall.

Jane Wyman received the Best Actress Oscar for her performance in Johnny Belinda.  The film was nominated in the categories of Best Actor (Ayers); Best Supporting Actor (Bickford); Best Supporting Actress (Moorehead); Best Director; Best Writing, Screenplay; Best Cinematography, Black-and-White; Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Black-and-White; Best Sound, Recording; Best Film Editing; and Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture (Max Steiner).

Trailer

Portrait of Jennie (1948)

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Directed by William Dieterle
Written by Paul Osborn and Peter Berneis from a novel by Robert Nathan
1948/USA
Vanguard Films/Selznick International Pictures
First viewing/Netflix rental

Jennie Appleton: [singing] Where I come from nobody knows and where I am going everything goes. The wind blows, the sea flows, nobody knows. And where I am going, nobody knows.

I admit it.  I am too old and cynical to appreciate this very odd romantic fantasy.  It sure did look good though.

Eben Adams (Joseph Cotten) is a starving painter.  He brings a portfolio of landscapes to an art gallery in hopes of selling something.  The gallery owners Mr. Matthews (Cecil Kellaway) and Miss Spinney (Ethel Barrymore) tell him he is talented but nothing special.  He needs to find something to be passionate about to bring life to his work.  Miss Spinney buys a painting anyway.

As he is walking home through Central Park, Eben meets a young teenager who is building a snowman.  She introduces herself as Jennie Appleton (Jennifer Jones) and says her parents are performing in a vaudeville act at the Hammersmith Theater.  The theater has been closed for many years.  Eben and Jennie have a pleasant conversation and she asks him to wait for her before disappearing.  He finds her scarf wrapped in an old newspaper but is unable to return it to her.

Eban gets new inspiration from this meeting and begins a portrait of Jennie based on his memory.  The gallery owners are impressed.  His finances start to look up when he gets a job painting a mural in an Irish pub.

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Jennie reappears at intervals over the next several years, growing up as she does so and continuing to ask Eban to wait for her to be old enough to marry.  She disappears each time and it gradually becomes clear that she is some kind of apparition from around 1910. Eventually, Eban paints a masterpiece when she poses for him.

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This is another film based on the theme of eternal redemptive love.  It argues that the one right person in the universe may be from another time and spiritual realm.  Very, very odd. The photography and effects are fantastic.  Some of the scenes start out as transformations from oil paintings.  It concludes with a truly awesome storm.  If the story strikes you as interesting, I’d say go for it.

Portrait of Jennie won the Academy Award for Best Effects, Special Effects.  Joseph H. August was nominated for Best Cinematography, Black-and-White.

Clip

Joe Dante on Portrait of Jennie, “Trailers from Hell”

Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948)

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Directed by Max Ophüls
Written by Howard Koch; story by Stefan Zweig
1948/USA
Rampart Productions
Repeat viewing/YouTube
#213 of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die

 

Stefan Brand: And I don’t even know where you live. Promise me you won’t vanish.

Lisa Berndl: I won’t be the one who vanishes.

For me, the outstanding aspect of this film is the beautiful visuals.  Unfortunately, I was reduced to watching it in a very dodgy print on YouTube.  How could they let this classic go out of print?

The setting is Vienna at the turn of the last century.  As the movie opens, handsome, world-weary Stefan Brand is returning from a night on the town with a couple of friends. They are to serve as seconds in a duel he has been challenged to fight.  It seems that this is a frequent occurrence for the womanizing Brand.  The friends warn him his opponent is an excellent shot.  They agree to pick him up in three hours.

As he enters his apartment, Brand tells his valet to pack his belongings for an indefinite stay abroad.  He plans to be gone within the hour.  But the valet hands him a mysterious letter in an unknown hand beginning “By the time you read this, I may be dead …”.  As he starts to read the letter, we hear the voice of the writer, Lisa Brendle (Joan Fontaine) explaining who she is and what she has been to Brand.  We segue into flashback.

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It seems that as a young teenager Lisa Berndle (Joan Fontaine) became intrigued by Brand when she saw movers hauling his piano up to his apartment next to hers.  Once she glimpses the pianist’s handsome face, she is a goner.  She spends years mooning over him from a distance. She builds her life around this stranger, who does not know she exists, to the extent that she considers herself “not free” to accept a marriage proposal.

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Lisa grows up to be a beauty and begins working as a dressmaker’s mannequin.  She continues to spend all her evenings hanging around Brand’s apartment building in hopes of seeing him.  Then she does and her troubles really begin.  Brand is attracted and the two spend several evenings together.  Then he goes on a concert tour, promising to return in a couple of weeks.  Naturally, she finds herself pregnant and does not see the cad again for several years.

Fate smiles on Lisa and she marries a wealthy man who loves her despite her past, her son, and her continuing obsession for Brand.  Is Lisa satisfied?  Nooooo ….

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If you believe that there is one deep, redemptive and eternal love out there for everyone and that this love can be discovered listening to a piano through an apartment wall, have I got a movie for you!  At least the scriptwriter believed these things and the story plays out as Stefan Brand’s tragedy.  The tragedy is that he was unaware of this love until too late.  If he had known, he could have saved himself from becoming the shallow wastrel that he is.

Unfortunately, I cannot help but see the story as Lisa’s tragedy, stemming perhaps from some type of mental illness.  Or perhaps it was just the times and gender expectations that led to her downfall.  At any rate, she seems like the kind of person that would develop into a stalker in a more modern context.

All that said, the acting is all very good and Ophuls makes the whole thing look lushly romantic.  I rated the film very highly on my previous viewing.  It was very hard to appreciate the visuals on YouTube.  If the story appeals, you will likely love it.

Trailer

I Walk Alone

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Directed by Byron Haskin
Written by Charles Schnee from the play “Beggars Are Coming to Town” by Theodore Reeves
1948/USA
Hal Wallis Productions
First viewing/Amazon Instant

 

Nick Palestro: For a buck, you’d double-cross your own mother.

Skinner: Why not? She’d do the same to me.

The sparks always fly when Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas meet up in a movie.

Frankie Madison (Lancaster) took the fall when a getaway went wrong and spent 14 years in the slammer.  When he gets out, he comes calling on partner Noll ‘Dink’ Turner (Douglas) who was supposed to have kept 50% of the proceeds of their nightclub for him.  Dink welcomes Frankie back and sets his girlfriend singer Kay Lawrence (Lizabeth Scott) to soften him up and find out what he wants.  In the meantime, the all-business Dink is planning to marry an heiress.

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It turns out Dink, with the help of Frankie’s friend Dave (Wendell Corey), an accountant, has fraudulently obtained Frankie’s signature on papers transferring the club to a very complicated series of holding companies.  Frankie attempts to round up the old gang to strong arm Dink into giving him his fair share but this proves futile.  Kay’s allegiance and love quickly shifts to Frankie when she learns of Dink’s marriage plans.  She proves to be his main ally against Dink and his muscle men.  With Mike Mazurki as the chief muscle man.

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I felt like I had seen this story before and I have certainly seen Lizabeth Scott play the exact same part once too often.  Still, the film is enjoyable and competently made.  The highlight is Douglas, who is great as usual as a total heel.

Trailer