Saturday, April 28, 2012

Tonight's Movie: Slaughter on Tenth Avenue (1957) at the Noir City Film Festival

It was another fantastic evening at the Noir City Film Festival. Each and every night has been special, and tonight was no exception. On the schedule: "waterfront noir" and a personal appearance by the lovely Julie Adams.

I started off the evening stopping by Larry Edmunds Bookshop and hearing part of a talk by Alain Silver and James Ursini, who then signed my copy of a new book they edited, FILM NOIR: THE DIRECTORS. I'm particularly looking forward to reading a chapter on Anthony Mann, which includes quite a bit on the film I saw last night, REIGN OF TERROR (1949).

My very nicest experience this evening came once I was at the Egyptian, where I had the opportunity to meet Blake Lucas and his wife Linda. Regular readers of this blog will recognize Blake's name, as I am fortunate that he shares his vast knowledge and insights here in the comments. It was a treat to meet in person and put a face with a name, and I look forward to seeing both of them again at future screenings.

Then it was time for the movie, and SLAUGHTER ON TENTH AVENUE proved to be a terrific film, shown in a beautiful new 35mm print from Universal. As I mentioned the other evening, I'm very appreciative of the Noir City Festival exposing me to so many relatively little-known films which pack a lot of entertainment value.

SLAUGHTER ON TENTH AVENUE has it all: an all-star cast, a gripping storyline, crisp black and white cinematography, and the effective use of Richard Rodgers' classic music as the background score.

SLAUGHTER ON TENTH AVENUE, which is loosely based on the facts of a real-life case, calls to mind the much better known ON THE WATERFRONT (1954), another tale of the fight against corruption on the docks. New Assistant D.A. Bill Keating (Richard Egan) battles the waterfront code of silence when dock worker Solly Pitts (Mickey Shaughnessy) is gunned down in the hallway of his apartment building.

Keating struggles to build a case against Eddie "Cockeye" Cook (Joe Downing) and his accomplices, slowly convincing the dying Solly to finger his killers and Solly's wife (Jan Sterling) and best friend (Harry Bellaver) to testify. It's not easy, with ruthless waterfront boss Al Dahlke (Walter Matthau) alternately attempting to bribe and threaten witnesses. However, Assistant D.A. Keating is himself the son of a coal miner, and while he's a fairly green attorney with quite a bit to learn, he's also a tough man who won't back down easily.

All of the performances are good, but for me the best part of the film was watching three real greats in action: Dan Duryea, Sam Levene, and Charles McGraw.  As I'm sure other classic film fans can imagine, it was a great pleasure seeing them all on screen together in the very well-done courtroom scenes. Duryea plays the defense attorney, who certainly earns his pay planting seeds of doubt in the jurors' minds; Levene plays Keating's boss at the district attorney's office, who sits second chair prosecuting the murder trial; and the gravel-voiced McGraw is the investigating detective on the case. You just don't get any better than the trial scene where Duryea grills McGraw. Talk about watching two pros in action!

One of the things I liked was that the film didn't always do the expected. For instance, when her husband is threatened or involved in violence, Julie Adams' character doesn't threaten to leave, as Arlene Dahl did in SCENE OF THE CRIME (1949) or Rhonda Fleming did in THE KILLER IS LOOSE (1956). Instead she steadfastly encourages her husband and reminds him of the people who are counting on his help. It was a refreshingly uncliched approach.

Similarly, when Bill and his boss (Levene) have a difference of opinion on whether they have enough evidence to prosecute a murder charge, Levene gets over Bill's uncalled-for insult and then unexpectedly goes the extra mile to help Bill. The script avoids easy theatrics, such as having someone on the prosecution team turn out to be on the mob payroll or having a nasty fate befall Jan Sterling's cute little dog. (I was worried about that, as it happens in too many movies; REAR WINDOW, anyone?) The story is plenty interesting as it is without adding in unneeded extra twists and drama.

I'm not particularly fond of Jan Sterling, but I thought she was excellent in this as the devoted, tough wife of the shooting victim. I recall Mickey Shaughnessy well for his role as a leprechaun in an episode of MAVERICK, and he was also quite good as her husband, Solly.

The actor playing Father Paul seemed very familiar, but I didn't place him until I got home and read it was Jack LaRue, the star of pre-Codes such as BLESSED EVENT (1932) and HEADLINE SHOOTER (1933). Father Paul is a fairly small role, especially compared to the similar type of part Karl Malden played in ON THE WATERFRONT, but he does have an excellent scene near the film's conclusion which also gets the best laugh in the film.

Nick Dennis, John McNamara, and Mickey Hargitay (father of actress Mariska Hargitay) are also in the cast. I'd like to know who played Rose, the secretary in the D.A.'s office; she was quite a looker, but is not listed in the extended cast credits at IMDb.

This 103-minute film was directed by Arnold Laven. Lawrence Roman's screenplay was based on the nonfiction book THE MAN WHO ROCKED THE BOAT by William Keating and Richard Carter. The cinematography was by Fred Jackman Jr., who coincidentally filmed a "B" movie I saw a few days ago, DOUBLE EXPOSURE (1944). Alan Rode shared that the New York waterfront scenes were filmed in California, at the Port of Long Beach.

This movie is not available on VHS or DVD, but it should be.

After the film Julie Adams was interviewed by the Film Noir Foundation's Alan Rode. I feel very fortunate that this was my second opportunity to see Alan interview Julie in the last six months; she was also at a screening of CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954) and BEND OF THE RIVER (1952) last October.

This was Julie's first time to see SLAUGHTER ON TENTH AVENUE since it came out, and she said she was pleasantly surprised to realize what a good film it was. She was impressed by the storyline and the depth of the ensemble cast.

She also shared stories of some of her experiences working for Universal, such as the challenge of turning out half a dozen Westerns costarring James Ellison and Russell Hayden in a very short time frame, circa 1950; at the same time, she very much appreciated the training she received at Universal.

She spoke highly of William Powell, saying how charming and nice he was when they worked together early in her career, and she also shared some of the praise of Jimmy Stewart and Arthur Kennedy which she had likewise expressed before we saw BEND OF THE RIVER last fall.

I didn't stay for the second film on the double bill, EDGE OF THE CITY (1957), as I needed a relatively early evening after a late night last night. Coming Sunday: Dick Powell in JOHNNY O'CLOCK (1947) and George Raft in JOHNNY ALLEGRO (1949).


Blogger James Corry said...

"Slaughter On 10th Ave." is a film that I'm unfamiliar with. As you pointed out Laura, it's not available on ANY form of home-video and it's never revived on TV. It would be a good thing if Universal would "step up" their made-on-demand DVD program and released films such as this one and "Naked Alibi" REGULARLY (like the WB Archive does) instead of haphazardly as they've been doing.

BTW Laura, on a completely different subject (and for anyone else who lives in the So. Cal. area) "Twilight Time" is hosting a screening for their newest blu-ray release "Journey To The Center of The Earth" Thursday May 3rd and Saturday May 5th at the Warner Grand in San Pedro. To see and hear one of the old CinemaScope films in a venue such as the Warner Grand is a real treat!


8:29 AM  
Blogger barrylane said...

Re Johnny O'Clock. A film I admire. A story of sexual obsession rather than a mystery or crime entry. It is compeltely noirish using the definition of noir as material depicting lost and sadly loser souls. Seen with this sensibility Johnny works just wonderfully.

11:33 AM  
Blogger Blake Lucas said...

Thanks for the kind words, Laura. We really appreciated meeting you too and look forward to seeing you again.

I'm pleased that you did like the movie since I know I had encouraged
you to see it.

I must say this held up very well for me, and was my best viewing of it since 1957 when I also saw it theatrically. I've seen it a couple of times over the years on TV, appreciated it, but it does gain so much on the big screen, like any good movie this good.

I can't argue with anything you said about the people you singled out in that great cast--McGraw and Duryea are both favorites of mine and Levene always solid--but I would just add two things. First, that those who know Walter Matthau from the greater part of his career later when he had quite a lovable persona in all those comedies might be surprised at how stunningly effective he is as a ruthless rackets boss, really mesmerizing and I remember this was the first movie in which he jumped out for me as a brilliant actor. Second, for me Nick Dennis as Midget, although it is a small role, is key to making the whole so moving and he is central in what are for me its two best scenes, the long early one that begins on the docks and continues in his room with Egan, and the final one, in which he is the only remaining character after everyone else has left. The detail of this final scene--and the choreography of both camera and actor (with great help from Rodgers' wonderful music)--clearly show directorial inspiration above all else, and when I had the fortuitous opportunity to speak with Arnold Laven once I asked him about it, and he was pleased that I noticed and very proud of what he had done there. A real epiphany--and kind of unexpected--in an already excellent movie.

Laura, I don't know where you get the energy! You drove back to Orange County from the Egyptian and wrote this last night. It's impressive.

Hope to see you again soon and it was such a great pleasure to meet at the movie.

1:40 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Brad, thank you so much for pointing out that screening in San Pedro, it sounds great! I wish I were able to see it (I have tickets to return to the Egyptian on the 5th); it sounds like a great opportunity and I hope film fans will take advantage of it.

I couldn't agree more re Universal films. I've seen a couple of their releases distributed by Amazon and movies like TOMAHAWK and SEMINOLE are gorgeous -- but there is a vast untapped library of titles out there, as this film festival hints. I would love to see a program of regular DVD releases.

Barrylane, couldn't agree more re JOHNNY O'CLOCK, I think it's a terrific film. Based on my first viewing it's up there with CRY DANGER as my favorite Powell noir. I'm looking forward to taking a fresh look at it.

Best wishes,

1:50 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi (again!) Blake, and thanks so much for the kind words. What a great evening!

You bring out some excellent points. I was trying to think of who Nick Dennis as the belligerent Midget reminded me of, and it came to me while reading your comments -- Belker (Bruce Weitz) on HILL STREET BLUES. That scene where he looks at the photos on his dresser in his ratty room is a heartbreaker.

I also neglected to mention Matthau among the large cast -- he was excellent. When he opened up the backs of those trucks near the end of the movie, maybe I should have anticipated the moment but I think I gasped. (Grin)

I'm definitely a little short on sleep trying to get everything done while the festival lasts, but it comes just once a year and is very worth all the extra effort. :)

Looking forward to seeing you and Linda again before too long, and I'll be enjoying the book in the meantime! Thanks again so much for everything.

Best wishes,

1:56 PM  
Blogger Caftan Woman said...

I remember watching "Slaughter on 10th Avenue" on television with my Dad. He called it a "dandy". Most of the movies he referred to that way happened to be film-noir. It's a habit I picked up early and still use.

I haven't seen the movie since those old days though. You brought back memories and moved it to the top of the must-see list.

9:40 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

I like that, Caftan Woman -- this film was, indeed, "a dandy." I hope you can see it soon.

As Brad said in the opening comment, Universal *really* needs to step up their releases. There are so many great Universal (and Paramount!) films "behind the Universal wall" which are impossible to see or can only be seen via "bootleg"/"gray market" copies. It doesn't seem right for such significant pieces of our nation's film history to be so inaccessible.

Universal is to be applauded for striking exceptionally beautiful new 35mm prints for Noir City. Hopefully before too long they'll put more effort into DVD releases!

Best wishes,

9:49 AM  
Blogger Vienna said...

Thanks for your review, Laura. I saw this film recently and agree it has a great cast. I always liked Richard Egan and wish he had got more starring roles. He is very good in VIOLENT SATURDAY.
It was so unusual to use Richard Rodgers' "Slaughter on 10th Avenue" as the soundtrack for the film. It worked very well. This wonderful piece of music is from the Broadway musical ON YOUR TOES, which Hollywood managed to turn into an inferior film.
I like Jan Sterling and thought this was a very interesting and unusual role for her, quite a different character for Jan, as the faithful and brave wife - no glamour at all.
A pity Julie Adams didn't have a bigger role.
Surprising that Dan Duryea didn't appear till an hour into the film.

12:23 PM  

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