Dillinger (1945)

“Watch for the woman in red.”

Synopsis:
When a petty thief (Lawrence Tierney) meets a high-level criminal (Edmund Lowe) in prison, he soon graduates to bank heists, becoming America’s Public Enemy Number One. Along the way, he meets and starts dating a beautiful box office girl (Anne Jeffreys) who will one day play a pivotal role in his downfall

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Review:
Lawrence Tierney’s breakthrough role was playing the title character in this low-budget Monogram Pictures flick about notorious gangster John Dillinger. It remains a surprisingly taut and effective film about Dillinger’s rise-and-fall — including an interesting meet-cute with “the lady in red” (he holds her up in her ticket booth, she refuses to identify him in a line-up, and the rest is “I was meant to be a moll” history). The supporting performances are all fine — particularly Lowe (who looks eerily like a serious Lionel Barrymore) as “Specs” — and Tierney instantly proved his ability to embody psychopathic impulses without a blink. Especially tense and well-played scenes are those focused on Dillinger seeking revenge: Dillinger revisiting a bar (“You don’t remember me, do you?”) where a waiter once made the mistake of referring to then-penniless-Dillinger as a “two-bit chiseler”; Dillinger confronting Specs with the hyper-realistic wooden gun he made while in prison. This 70-minute flick is well worth a look.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine performances by Tierney, Lowe, and Jeffreys


  • Numerous tension-filled scenes
  • Effective cinematography

Must See?
Yes, as an effective low-budget gangster film. Listed as a Sleeper in the back of Peary’s book.

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Blues in the Night (1941)

“That ain’t a band — it’s a unit! It’s one guy multiplied five times.”

Synopsis:
A jazz pianist (Richard Whorf) and a clarinetist (Elia Kazan) form a blues band with a trumpeter (Jack Carson) and his singer-wife (Priscilla Lane), but find their aspirations complicated when an ex-con (Lloyd Nolan) first holds them up in a train car, then invites them to come work for him at a roadhouse where a manipulative singer (Betty Field) attempts to seduce nearly every man around her.

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Review:
Wikipedia describes this interesting, fast-paced enigma (mess?) of a movie as an “American musical in the film noir style”. Indeed, reading Wikipedia’s plot synopsis gives a good sense of how this bizarre film shifts from a “let’s put together a band!” feel-good musical to a tale where we’re no longer certain what role music plays other than as the life-passion being sucked out of Whorf by a ruthless femme fatale. Ernest Haller’s cinematography makes the entire affair gorgeous to look at, and there are some mind-bending surrealistic images that shift the film into yet another category of cinema altogether. Field gives a red-hot performance, future-director Kazan hops around on screen like he’s on speed, and there’s no guarantee at all of where or how things will end. Is this really what the blues look like at night?

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Betty Field as Kay
  • Ernest Haller’s atmospheric cinematography

  • The Oscar-nominated title song

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a one-time look.

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Tarzan’s New York Adventure (1942)

“When strangers come here from the outside, they always cause trouble — they’re always seeking something.”

Synopsis:
When Boy (Johnny Sheffield) is taken to New York by a circus owner (Charles Bickford), Tarzan (Johnny Weissmuller) and Jane (Maureen O’Sullivan) travel to rescue their son — but will the law of the city be on their side?

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Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary notes that this “enjoyable” “last of the six Johnny Weissmuller-Maureen O’Sullivan Tarzan films produced by MGM” features a “fairly adult script that gave [O’Sullivan] a chance to wear fashionable clothes and appear in a familiar, non-exotic setting”. He writes that Tarzan — “uncomfortable in his double-breasted suit, finding modern conveniences to be ridiculous, and having trouble dealing with the values of civilization and articulating his own pure philosophy” — comes across as a “savage” in the courtroom, but redeems himself once “he finds his niche… at the circus, where animals (including his longtime friends, the elephants) are held captive.” It’s refreshing if awkward to see the series taking such a different route, and there are some notable highlights — specifically Tarzan’s epic escape across New York (amazing stunt work!). However, this one is only must-see for fans following the series closely.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • The exciting New York escape scene

Must See?
No; you can skip this one unless you’re a Tarzan completist.

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Tarzan’s Secret Treasure (1941)

“Gold no good — Tarzan get dinner!”

Synopsis:
When two nefarious explorers (Tom Conway and Philip Dorn) — accompanied by a photographer (Barry Fitzgerald) — discover there’s gold near where Tarzan (Johnny Weissmuller), Jane (Maureen O’Sullivan), and their son Boy (Johnny Sheffield) live, they will stop at nothing to obtain it.

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Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “fifth entry in MGM’s Johnny Weissmuller-Maureen O’Sullivan series” has a “pretty standard” plot and is “a bit on the juvenile level”, adding that the “budget cutbacks forced director Richard Thorpe to include action footage from Tarzan and His Mate and Tarzan Escapes.” However, he notes that “O’Sullivan is lovely” (when is she ever not?), “Conway is vile, and Weissmuller is an ideal adventure hero”, as evidenced in the “exciting finale” when Tarzan “swims to the rescue, fights a giant crocodile, battles cannibals, and calls on the elephants.” Peary notes that “the most interesting aspect of the film, considering the entire series was accused (rightly at times) of racism, is that a little black orphan boy [Cordell Hickman] becomes an adopted member of Tarzan’s family and is right there with them at the end” (though “predictably, he wasn’t even mentioned in the next Tarzan film”). Otherwise, there’s absolutely nothing to distinguish this flick from others in the series: it follows the same exact formula, down to final capture by a “savage” local tribe. Only diehard fans of the series need check this one out.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • The refreshing presence of a humanized African boy

Must See?
Nope; this is yet another GFTFF title fanatics can feel free to skip.

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Tarzan Finds a Son! (1939)

“Go to your father, Boy — and later on, he’ll teach you all the things you’ll ever need to know in the jungle.”

Synopsis:
After a plane crashes nearby their home, Jane (Maureen O’Sullivan) and Tarzan (Johnny Weissmuller) adopt the sole survivor — a baby who grows into an active young child they call Boy (John Sheffield). When the child’s aunt (Frieda Inescort), uncle (Ian Hunter), and another relative (Henry Stephenson) arrive to learn more about their missing relatives, they find Boy and plan to take him back to London — but will Jane and Tarzan allow their beloved son to leave?

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Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary notes that this “fourth entry into Metro’s Johnny Weissmuller-Maureen O’Sullivan Tarzan series” was “supposed to be the unhappy O’Sullivan’s last, so the studio decided to kill Jane off and fill the gap in Tarzan’s life with a young adopted son, Boy” — but “fortunately, so much pressure was placed on the studio by Tarzan fans that Jane does not die, although the entire script most definitely leads up to her demise at the end” and “her recovery from a fatal injury is miraculous”. He argues that the “film is entertaining, although there’s too much footage of Tarzan and Boy swimming around and not enough intimacy between Tarzan and Jane (a bad sign that the series was becoming less adult)” — though I can’t quite agree; the presence of an active young boy brings welcome excitement and tension to the proceedings, as he’s in near-constant danger from the wildlife around him (check out those huge spiders!). Hunter and Inescort are appropriately smarmy as the dubious relatives clearly on the take for money, not the privilege of parenting Boy.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Several memorable moments — such as Tarzan swimming with Boy, and Boy caught in a large spider web

Must See?
No; while reasonably well-made, this one is only must-see for fans of the series.

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Tarzan Escapes (1936)

“Out here, Tarzan’s a king. How do I know what he’d be back there?”

Synopsis:
When her cousins (Benita Hume and William Henry) arrive for a visit in the jungle, Jane (Maureen O’Sullivan) and her mate Tarzan (Johnny Weissmuller) are eager to host them and the professional hunter (John Buckler) they’re travelling with — but when Jane learns she must head back to the U.S. to sign inheritance paperwork, she worries what the impact will be on Tarzan.

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Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “third entry in the Johnny Weissmuller-Maureen O’Sullivan [Tarzan] series” marked “the turning point… from adult far to family entertainment”, given that “not only was Jane expected to wear a costume several times the one she wore in Tarzan and His Mate, but several scenes considered too horrifying for children were either reshot or eliminated (including the legendary vampire-bat sequence)”. (Check out this article for more detailed information on the film’s original iteration.) While Peary concedes that “Tarzan fans will enjoy the film”, other film fanatics can feel free to skip this one.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine cinematography

Must See?
No; this one is only must-see for completists of the series.

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Tarzan the Fearless (1933)

“Just one of a thousand jungle legends: something about a wild white man raised by apes.”

Synopsis:
The daughter (Julie Bishop) of a missing doctor (E. Alyn Warren) who has been captured by a cult led by a high priest (Mischa Auer) goes on a jungle safari with a friend (Edward Woods) and two guides (Philo McCullough and Matthew Betz). Soon she learns her father has been rescued by Tarzan the Ape Man (Buster Crabbe).

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Review:
This early competitor to MGM’s Tarzan, the Ape Man (1932) was originally shown as a serial, then pulled together into this crude feature length film. It will be of interest only to fans of early cinema curious to make a comparison — though at least Olympic swimmer Crabbe (who portrayed Tarzan, Flash Gordon, and Buck Rogers in serials) is a hunky on-screen presence (that loincloth!), and the other lead young actors are pleasant to look at, too. The storyline is pure hokum, probably enjoyable escapist fare for kids at the time but not at all of interest to modern-day film fanatics.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Beautiful actors

Must See?
No, unless you’re curious to check it out.

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Of Mice and Men (1939)

“I don’t say he’s bright — he ain’t; but I say he’s a good worker.”

Synopsis:
An itinerant worker (Burgess Meredith) and his mentally disabled friend (Lon Chaney, Jr.) arrive at a ranch where the surly son (Bob Steele) of the owner is unhappy about his wife’s (Betty Field) interest in a farmhand named Slim (Charles Bickford). When George (Meredith) reassures Lennie (Chaney, Jr.) that they will one day purchase a farm of their own, they pique the interest of both an elderly white (Roman Bohnen) and a marginalized black (Leigh Whipper) co-worker interested in joining them.

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Review:
Lewis Milestone directed this adaptation of John Steinbeck’s heart-wrenching novella and play, depicting a tale of friendship that truly tests the limits of our willingness to “do the right thing” under challenging circumstances. Meredith reprised his Broadway role, while Chaney Jr. was brought on board to play Lennie; both hit each note of their characters perfectly, and the rest of the supporting cast is excellent as well. (It’s particularly refreshing to see an African-American [Whipper] given a meaningful and nuanced role.) Aaron Copland’s score is almost a character in its own right, at times intrusive but never uninteresting. I find it hard to say much more about this film other than that everyone should see it — but be forewarned: while I rarely cry at movies, this one is an exception.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Burgess Meredith as George
  • Lon Chaney, Jr. as Lennie
  • Fine supporting performances by the entire cast


  • A heartbreaking screenplay, faithfully adapted

Must See?
Yes, as a still-powerful adaptation. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book.

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Man Hunt (1941)

“Men of your character have accidents.”

Synopsis:
When a Gestapo leader (George Sanders) captures an aristocratic hunter (Walter Pidgeon) training his sights on Hitler, Pidgeon is relentlessly pursued by both Sanders and a Reich agent (John Carradine) out of Germany and into England, where he befriends a Cockney seamstress (Joan Bennett) who falls in love with him.

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Review:
Man Hunt was the first of a quartet of ant-Nazi films Fritz Lang made after he emigrated to the United States, followed by Hangmen Also Die! (1943), Ministry of Fear (1944), and Cloak and Dagger (1946). It opens with a decidedly provocative and startling scene, as sportsman Pidgeon points his rifle directly at Hitler (I don’t think this is an actor!) before being captured and sent on the run back to his home country. Man Hunt remains a reasonably exciting and atmospherically filmed (by Arthur Miller) action-thriller, with a screenplay hampered by Pidgeon’s romance with Bennett (I guess I’m really not a fan of besotted Cockney lasses). However, it’s worth a look, especially as “the first war film to attract the attention of the then-neutral America’s Hays Office” (Joseph Breen was “alarmed by the script” and referred to it as a “hate film”).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Walter Pidgeon as Alan Thorndike
  • Arthur Miller’s cinematography
  • A clever, unexpected ending

Must See?
Yes, once, for its historical relevance.

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Red Planet Mars (1952)

“Our economic system is a shambles — industrial production shot to blazes — our entire civilization collapsing about our heads like a house of cards, and the whole western world going down with us.”

Synopsis:
When a radio broadcaster (Peter Graves) and his wife (Andrea King) make contact with Martians, they begin to spread the planet’s messages of hope to humanity — but could an embittered ex-Nazi (Franz Calder) working for the Communists be interfering with the signals in some way?

Genres:

Review:
This Cold War morality tale about intergalactic communication in the midst of earthly ideological conflicts is amusingly earnest, filled with plenty of laughably ripe dialogue played straight:

Graves: “Are you saying you think those polar formation are ice? And that in a week, these Martians have melted ice caps thousand of feet high and used the water to irrigate the planet?
Scientist:Isn’t that what the picture says?!!?

King: “Every woman in the world — we all live in fear. It’s become our natural state.”

Unfortunately, while its title promises vibrant color, the only “red” in this black-and-white flick is Communism, personified as villainous bad guys with an unwilling hostage (Calder) in their hands. When the primary theme of the film is revealed (“God Speaks From Mars!”) we’re meant to believe that if only all humans were free to practice Christianity, we would be lovingly at peace with one another. Naturally, nothing is ever this simple, though it’s fascinating to see what audiences once-upon-a-time may have been wishing for.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Effective cinematography and sets


Must See?
No, but it’s recommended for one-time viewing as an unusual relic of its time.

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