Thursday, December 29, 2005

Day 40: "Angels Over Broadway"

Directors: Ben Hecht, Lee Garmes 1940
The great Pauline Kael once said that about half of the most entertaining movies to come out of Hollywood were written by Ben Hecht. Here's a sample: "Scarface" (the original with Paul Muni), "Barbary Coast," "Viva Villa," "Wuthering Heights," "Kiss of Death" (the original--the one where Richard Widmark shoves an old lady in a wheelchair down a flight of stairs), "Spellbound," and one of Hitchcock's masterpieces, "Notorious." That's just a sprinkling of his credited work. But consider movies he worked uncredited: "Angels With Dirty Faces," "Gilda," "The Thing" (again, the original, the one that Howard Hawks directed but also didn't take credit), "Strangers on a Train," "The Shop Around the Corner," "Lifeboat," "Gilda" and a little number called "Gone With the Wind." The man was a writing machine--and let's not forget that he and Charles MacArthur wrote the play "The Front Page," which has been made into a movie at least four times (notably with a sex change for the lead in "His Girl Friday").
Hecht also directed seven films (four with MacArthur, two with Garmes). "Angels Over Broadway" is the only one I've seen; it's a strange film, nicely shot by co-director Garmes, with some memorable dialogue that at times borders on the purple. The characters are losers: a down-on-his-heels con man (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) , a lovely hoofer who can't find work (Rita Hayworth), a failed playwright (Thomas Mitchell) and a mousy embezzler (John Qualen). Their lives intersect for just one night; by dawn, they've learned a thing or two about themselves and humanity. Far from a masterpiece, there is something about this movie that stays with you, and it certainly intrigued me enough to search out Hecht's other directing efforts.
Reading recommendations: Hecht's autiobiography, "A Child of the Century" (in which, I suspect, he never lets the facts get in the way of a good story), and his last novel, also autobiographical, "Gaily, Gaily"--all about his roistering days as a young reporter in the wild era of Chicago journalism.


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