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The Racket (1951) in Noir of the Week

May 22nd, 2015

Here’s a piece I wrote a while ago on the 1951 film The Racket for Noir of the Week.

“Who said I was an honest citizen? And what would it get me if I was?”

– Lizabeth Scott to Robert Mitchum in The Racket

Left to right above: Robert Ryan, John Cromwell, Lizabeth Scott and Robert Mitchum

As I wrote, “the traumatized figure of Robert Ryan as old-school rough and tough gangster Nick Scanlon towers over the wreckage of John Cromwell’s The Racket (1951), although the film has so many “punch up” scenes inserted after the completion of principal photography by director Nicholas Ray that it almost qualifies as a co-direction job. In addition, the actor/director Mel Ferrer, the film’s editor Sherman Todd, the film’s producer Edmund Grainger, and even director Tay Garnett (of The Postman Always Rings Twice) also took a hand in the proceedings, all under the overzealous and one might say hyper-controlling supervision of Howard Hughes, who at this point owned RKO Radio, the studio where this film was made, having acquired controlling interest in the company in 1948.

Hughes could never leave a project alone after it was finished shooting, in some cases scrapping whole elements of a film’s plot after principal photography. William Cameron Menzies’ delirious noir The Whip Hand comes immediately to mind; the film originally was about a plot devised by Adolf Hitler (Bobby Watson) to fatally poison America’s water supply, but after the film wrapped, Hughes decided that the villains should be Communists, who were suddenly much more trendy, and large segments of the film were reshot, at considerable added expense.

In the case of The Racket, the film was based on a silent film from 1928, also produced by Howard Hughes, and directed by a youthful Lewis Milestone, which was based in turn on a Broadway play by Bartlett Cormack, and starred Thomas Meighan, Louis Wolheim and Marie Prevost. Interestingly, the Broadway play version starred Edward G. Robinson, and, as an actor, a young John Cromwell, the director of the 1951 version, and the stage production subsequently toured throughout the country, winding up in Los Angeles, where Robinson was discovered by Warner Bros. and thrust into a series of gangster films that made him a star.

For many years, the 1928 version of The Racket was considered a “lost film,” but a print was finally located by Dr. Hart Wegner of the University of Nevada Las Vegas Film Department, and restored by Jeffrey Masino, with a new music track by Robert Israel. In 2004, the film was screened on Turner Classic Movies for the first time, but has yet to make it on to DVD; the 1928 version is certainly more coherent than the 1951 version, but the later version also has its merits – in a bizarre sort of way.

Chief among the pluses for the 1951 version are Robert Ryan, at his psychotic, raging best as outmoded gangster Nick Scanlon; Robert Mitchum somnolently strolling through his role as Captain Thomas McQuigg, an honest police captain in a city that has gone completely corrupt; the always dependable Lizabeth Scott as Irene Hayes, a nightclub singer who is predictably mixed up in the rackets; William Talman, surprisingly cast against type – he usually played murderers, thugs, and psychotic killers – as eager-beaver Officer Bob Johnson; Ray Collins as the exquisitely corrupt District Attorney Mortimer X. Welch; and last but far from least, William Conrad as Detective Sergeant Turk, another corrupt cop, who says almost nothing throughout the entire film but always seems to be hanging around the edges of the frame, chewing gum, and effectively stealing scenes from anyone who tries to upstage him.

Nor is this all; a gallery of pug-uglies, stoolies and other assorted noir characters round out the dramatis personae, from Walter Sande as a reliable sidekick cop to Mitchum’s Captain McQuigg, Les Tremayne as Harry Craig, head of the Crime Commission, the smooth heavy Don Porter as R.G. Connolly, front man for the never-seen “Old Man” who runs the entire corrupt enterprise, and noir regulars Harry Lauter, Don Dillaway, Howland Chamberlain, Tito Vuolo, Herb Vigran, Richard Reeves, Iris Adrian, Don Beddoe and others too numerous to mention. RKO had a heavy pool of talent to draw from in 1950s Hollywood, and even if these actors weren’t stars, they were solid professionals who could be counted on to show up on time, know their lines, and get through their scenes efficiently and with absolute conviction, even if the film’s script sometimes crumbled beneath them.”

That’s just an excerpt; read the entire article by clicking here, or on the image above.

Fantasia of Color in Early Cinema

May 22nd, 2015

Just as I finish up my book on black and white, Amsterdam University Press comes out with this fabulous book on early color filmmaking.

Fantasia of Color in Early Cinema by Giovanni Fossati, Tom Gunning, Joshua Yumibe and Jonathan Roson is a stunning look at early hand colored and dyed cinema, from the turn of the 19th to 20 the centuries, which collects in one volume an enormous number of gorgeous, hand colored images. As the press material for book notes, “we normally think of early film as being black and white, but the first color cinematography appeared as early as the first decade of the twentieth century. In this visually stunning book, the editors present a treasure trove of early color film images from the archives of EYE Film Institute Netherlands, bringing to life their rich hues and forgotten splendor.

Carefully selecting and reproducing frames from movies made before World War I, Fossati, Gunning, Rosen, and Yumibe share the images here in a full range of tones and colors. Accompanying essays discuss the history of early film and the technical processes that filmmakers employed to capture these fascinating images, while other contributions explore preservation techniques and describe the visual delights that early film has offered audiences, then and now. Featuring more than 300 color illustrations for readers to examine and enjoy, Fantasia of Color in Early Cinema will engage scholars and other readers of all ages and backgrounds.”

Early reviews have been rhapsodic, with Martin Scorsese declaring that “‘I could gaze at the images in this book for hours. They are as fascinating as illuminated manuscripts or magic lantern slides,” and artist Tony Oursler commenting “in the endless rewrite of art history the moving image seems indefinably futuristic. Fantasia of Color in Early Cinema makes the case for the importance of these mind-blowing masterpieces. These stunningly chromatic film stills link technology and the human touch while revealing one of film’s best kept secrets. Traditional painting and sculpture relies on reflected light while projected light opens a wildly new path of experimentation. Here we see, for the very first time, images made at the speed of light.”

You can see more images from book by clicking here, or on the image above.

Forthcoming Book – Black & White Cinema: A Short History

May 20th, 2015

Coming this Fall, 2015 from Rutgers University Press – the first history of black and white cinema.

From the glossy monochrome of the classic Hollywood romance, to the gritty greyscale of the gangster picture, to film noir’s moody interplay of light and shadow, black-and-white cinematography has been used to create a remarkably wide array of tones.

Yet today, with black-and-white film stock nearly impossible to find, these cinematographic techniques are virtually extinct, and filmgoers’ appreciation of them is similarly waning. Black and White Cinema is the first study to consider the use of black-and-white as an art form in its own right, providing a comprehensive and global overview of the era when it flourished, from the 1900s to the 1960s.

Acclaimed film scholar Wheeler Winston Dixon introduces us to the masters of this art, discussing the signature styles and technical innovations of award-winning cinematographers like James Wong Howe, Gregg Toland, Freddie Francis, and Sven Nykvist. Giving us a unique glimpse behind the scenes, Dixon also reveals the creative teams—from lighting technicians to matte painters—whose work profoundly shaped the look of black-and-white cinema.

More than just a study of film history, this book is a rallying cry, meant to inspire a love for the artistry of black-and-white film, so that we might work to preserve this important part of our cinematic heritage. Lavishly illustrated with more than 40 on-the-set stills, Black & White Cinema provides a vivid and illuminating look at a creatively vital era.

“Dixon covers the entire history of black-and-white movies in one volume, and talks about the films and cinematographers who created these films, and often got little credit for their work. Fascinating and compelling, this is essential reading for anyone who loves movies.” —Robert Downey Sr., director, Putney Swope.

“Dixon has an encyclopedic knowledge of film history, and a subtle and well-honed aesthetic sense. He rescues important films from oblivion, and finds fresh angles of approach to films that are already familiar.” —Steven Shaviro, Wayne State University.

“Wheeler Winston Dixon’s colorful study of black-and-white cinema reaffirms yet again his unfailing expertise as a critic, historian, and dazzlingly fine writer. Indispensable for students, scholars, and movie buffs alike.” —David Sterritt, author of The Cinema of Clint Eastwood: Chronicles of America.

“In his latest book, Black and White Cinema, Wheeler Winston Dixon rediscovers the art of cinematography in those glorious black-and-white movies from Hollywood’s classic age.” —Jan-Christopher Horak, director, UCLA Film & Television Archive.

My thanks to all who helped with this extremely complex and ambitious project.

Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials

May 19th, 2015

Click here, or on the image above, to see the first trailer for The Scorch Trials.

This is the second in the Maze Runner films, inspired by a group of science fiction novel novels by James Dashner, which will apparently conclude with Maze Runner: The Death Cure in 2017. The Maze Runner films, as well as the books, owe an obvious debt to William Golding’s classic 1954 novel Lord of the Flies, which was made into a brilliant film by Peter Brook in 1963, and a terrible film by Harry Hook in 1990, but despite the clear thematic links, the first Maze Runner film lingers in my memory far more than the less-inspired, and much more formulaic Hunger Games films, which are, of course, enormously successful, and to my mind, at least, owe a clear debt to Koushun Takami’s 1996 novel Battle Royale, which was made into an excellent film (sadly, his last, before his death from cancer) by director Kinji Fukasaku in 2000.

Director Wes Ball, just 29 years old, is the creative mind behind the Maze Runner series, and as of now, he looks set to direct all three films, and has revealed that the third novel will not, for once, be split into two segments to drag things out, but rather released as a final stand alone project. As the official 20th Century Fox release notes for the film state, “in this next chapter of the epic Maze Runner saga, Thomas (Dylan O’Brien, returning from the first film, along with many other cast members) and his fellow Gladers face their greatest challenge yet: searching for clues about the mysterious and powerful organization known as WCKD. Their journey takes them to the Scorch, a desolate landscape filled with unimaginable obstacles. Teaming up with resistance fighters, the Gladers take on WCKD’s vastly superior forces and uncover its shocking plans for them all.”

With a cast that includes the excellent actors Giancarlo Esposito, Lili Taylor and Patricia Clarkson, despite the recycled plot tropes, Ball’s vision the future is both fresh and convincing, and he’s clearly mastered the use of special effects and CGI imagery in an intelligent fashion, using them to enhance the story rather than to overwhelm the viewer. In the end, I found myself both caring about the characters, and curious as to what would befall them in subsequent installments of the trilogy, and so I look forward to the release of The Scorch Trials this September. I also think it’s a solid idea not to drag this out, and release the final film in 2017 – let’s say what we want, and then move on, to new projects and new ideas, which I’m hopeful that Ball will handle with equal restraint and economy.

However, it should be noted that Dashner has added two additional novels to the series; one published, and one forthcoming – The Kill Order (2012) and The Fever Code (coming in 2016). The trilogy has thus been stretched into a pentalogy, seemingly so as not to let a profitable franchise die, which is to my mind never a good reason for continuing anything. So we will probably see films of those books sometime in the future, but I don’t know if Ball will be directing them. For now, I’ll just be content with what we have on hand, and wish the cast and creators of the first three films the best.

I’m surprised that I liked the first film so much; let’s see how The Scorch Trials measures up.

Archie Panjabi as 007

May 19th, 2015

Am I the only one whole thinks that the 007 franchise needs a major overhaul?

Archie Panjabi, criminally underused on the television series The Good Wifeshe has now left the series – would be a great choice for the 007 character, and move it away from the thuggishness of Daniel Craig, even if Skyfall, the latest Bond installment, did make more than a billion dollars worldwide. But it was such a dreary film – isn’t it time we got over the attitudes of the 1960s and moved into the 21st century with an action star who could give the role a whole new dimension?

As Mike Hale said of Panjabi’s character, Kalinda Sharma, in The Good Wife, “just like Bogie — and just like Bacall: that’s the secret of Kalinda Sharma. She’s a mash-up of film noir archetypes (and gender roles), both gumshoe and femme fatale, tough broad and heartbroken sap. Panjabi takes a genre cliché — the combination of hard shell and tender interior — and redeems it by maintaining a constant but perfectly poised intensity, one whose tight control only emphasizes its operatic force.”

Apparently, she’s in line to play a “Bond girl” in the next 007 film – but why not the leading role instead?

He’d Like To Buy The World a Coke

May 18th, 2015

In the end, Don Draper co-copted the counterculture of the 1960s and early 1970s to sell soda pop.

I’ve read a number of Mad Men finale recaps this morning, but this one, from Quartz, by Zachary M. Seward, seems the most perceptive by far. As Seward writes, “In the end, Don Draper bought the world a Coke. Mad Men’s final scene was perhaps the most iconic commercial ever to air in the United States: the 1971 ‘Hilltop’ ad for Coca-Cola.

The implication, though it’s hardly clear from the sequence of events at the end, is that Don’s wayward journey across the country, a reckoning and rebirth of his soul, ultimately leads back to New York, where he conjures the commercial. In real life, ‘Hilltop’ was created by a McCann-Erickson creative director, just like Don. But none of that is shown on screen.

Instead, we leave Don meditating at a retreat in California that resembles Esalen. ‘The new day brings new hope,’ their spiritual leader says. ‘The lives we led, the lives we’ve yet to lead. A new day, new ideas, a new you.’ Don and the rest of the group respond with ommm, and then it cuts to the ad.”

But not before a small bell goes off inside Don’s head – just a little “ping” – and he sees that he can turn this whole nightmare of a series ending to his advantage. Why not use this “rebirth” to sell something – as he always done, starting with himself? For the rest of the characters, a variety of endings, which I’ll let you read about here, but for Don, it’s simple – everything is a commodity.

Once an ad man, always an ad man. Not a bad way to end the series.

Mad Men Ends Tonight – Four Key Cast Members Look Back

May 17th, 2015

Elizabeth Moss, Christina Hendricks and John Slattery on the set of Mad Men, which concludes tonight.

Like a lot of other people, I would expect, I have been binge watching the Mad Men marathon on AMC sporadically over the last few days, and what a depressing trip it’s been! It’s done wonders for the various cast members, and launched a slew of careers, but I won’t have one bit of regret in seeing the series in the rear-view mirror – these are some of the most unpleasant, manipulative, and narcissistic characters to ever grace a television screen.

Yet the long, long storyline remains perversely captivating, and perfectly mirrors the “fall from the skyscraper” opening that’s been a constant fixture during the credits of the show over seven seasons – the last season drawn out for maximum audience impact. For me, the earlier seasons were much stronger than the more recent ones, which often verge on parody, even as they engage with some serious themes – and there was simply no reason to drag the series out by splitting the last season into two sections – but it doesn’t matter – tonight is the last episode.

In this entertaining and sharp feature, Becca Nadler rounds up interviews with four of the key cast members of the series and gets their thoughts on what the show has done for their careers, why viewers tune in week after week to watch the continuing self-destruction of the whole Sterling Cooper (and now McCann) gang, with nary a prediction about how the show will end up – which is great. There’s been such so much ridiculous speculation about Don’s final scenes, or Joan’s, or Roger’s, though we know that Betty has cancer, and it clearly won’t end well for her.

But what do the actors have to say about the show that quite literally put them on the map? Here’s a chance to find out. As Jon Hamm says of his character Don, “there are these bright colors and vibrant things, a montage and all this beautiful stuff [in Season 7] and you see this gray figure kind of moving through it, he hasn’t changed much. The world has, but he hasn’t,” while John Slattery (Roger Sterling) adds that “you don’t come through this journey without getting banged up. You’re not perfect at the end, and you’re not pristine.” You can say that again!

See what you think in these four excellent interviews from Indiewire.

Our Attention Span is Now Shorter Than That of a Goldfish

May 15th, 2015

Yes, we’re so distracted by digital media, that we now can’t pay attention for more than 8 seconds.

As Meredith Engel writes in The New York Daily News, “Humans now have shorter attention spans than goldfish — and we would write more, but you’re probably clicking somewhere else already. The new finding — by, of all companies, Microsoft — suggests that the little fish can concentrate for nine seconds compared to eight for humans.

The researchers looked at three different types of attention: Sustained attention is the ability to focus on one task continuously; selective attention is the ability to respond when distractions come up; and alternating attention is multitasking. To get a measure of focus levels, the researchers asked 2,000 Canadians to take online surveys, play games and have their brain electricity measured.

The researchers found that increased use of digital devices lessens our sustained attention, doesn’t affect our selective attention, and actually improves our alternating attention. That means we are less able to focus on one task, but are getting better at doing multiple tasks at once. The report says that the human attention span has decreased by four seconds since 2000 — and that tech innovations may be blame.” You think?

Maybe that’s why movies are so hyper-edited these days – or maybe they’re part of the cause.

Forthcoming Book – Dark Humor in Films of the 1960s

May 15th, 2015

I have a new book from Palgrave Pivot this July – pre-order it here now!

As the promotional materials for the book note, “Dark Humor in Films of the 1960s presents six detailed chapters on various topics that relate to genre cinema, concentrating on films and filmmakers whose films offered wide ranging commentary on popular culture. Covering both little and well-known films and filmmakers (Vanishing Point, Marcel Hanoun, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Max Ophüls), Dixon’s writings draw on a multitude of critical, historical, and archival sources to capture the reader’s attention from start to finish.

Wheeler Winston Dixon is the James Ryan Professor of Film Studies, Coordinator of the Film Studies Program, and Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, USA. He is the author of Death of the Moguls: The End of Classical Hollywood, Streaming: Movies, Media and Instant Access, and Cinema at the Margins and editor, with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, of the book series Quick Takes: Movies and Popular Culture.”

“Dixon is a first-rate film scholar, critic, and historian, and the qualities he has cultivated and refined over the years are evident in everything from the clarity, lucidity, and liveliness of his prose to the accuracy of his research, the force of his arguments, and the perspicuity of his judgments.” – David Sterritt, Chair, National Society of Film Critics

A short and concise look at some of the films that shaped a decade.

Mike Fleming Jr. Interviews Woody Allen in Deadline

May 14th, 2015

Mike Fleming Jr. of Deadline just published a fabulous interview with Woody Allen.

Even with his newest film, Irrational Man, at Cannes, Allen despairs of the current state of the movie business, and I must say I agree with him entirely. He has a deal for a series with Amazon, but doesn’t know what to do with it; he seems genuinely unhappy with all his work, and is only now turning to digital with a sort of “meh – why not?” attitude – “digital is really not cheaper and it’s not faster” – and he gets no pleasure from seeing his films – “I hate them all. None are different, and all are…unsatisfying, when you’re finished” – and never goes back to see them again.

But most of all, like all of us who love the cinema, he sees where Hollywood is heading, and he doesn’t like it one bit. Asked what he thought of the way the industry was heading, Allen responded flatly “well, I think it’s terrible. To me, movies are valuable as an art form and as a wonderful means of popular entertainment. But I think movies have gone terribly wrong. It was much healthier when the studios made a hundred films a year instead of a couple, and the big blockbusters for the most part are big time wasters. I don’t see them. I can see what they are: eardrum-busting time wasters.

I think Hollywood has gone in a disastrous path. It’s terrible. The years of cinema that were great were the ’30s, ’40s, not so much the ’50s…but then the foreign films took over and it was a great age of cinema as American directors were influenced by them and that fueled the ’50s and ’60s and ’70s. Then it started to turn.

Now it’s just a factory product. They can make a billion dollars on a film and spend hundreds of millions making it. They spend more money on the advertising budget of some of those films than all the profits of everything Bergman, Fellini and Bunuel made on all their films put together in their lifetimes. If you took everything that Bergman made in profit, everything Bunuel made and everything that Fellini made in their lifetimes and added it all together, you wouldn’t equal one weekend with the The Avengers and its $185 million to $200 million.

Hollywood is just commerce, and it’s a shame. There are all these wonderfully gifted actors out there that, as you said before, will be in a film of mine for virtually nothing, union minimum, for what you called validation. Really, it’s because they want to work on something that doesn’t insult their intelligence; they don’t want to have to get in to a suit and practice stunts for two months and then do stunts and then… they want to be in something that doesn’t demean their artistic impulses.”

Much more here in Deadline - read the entire interview – it’s essential.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at wdixon1@unl.edu or wheelerwinstondixon.com

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