The Noose Hangs High (1948) Abbott and Costello’s first non-Universal film is also rightly remembered as one of their weakest. The flimsy plot remakes the 1939 film For Love or Money as a comedy, but only in the sense that Bud and Lou graft a handful of their comic routines onto the proceedings. Worse, those routines had all been used before on the big screen, and with greater energy (most famous is the “you’re forty, she’s ten” bit from Buck Privates, turned tiresome here). These moments never feel as organic as they do in other, better Abbott and Costello pictures, whereas here, they drag, playing more as bloated asides than as joyous revisits. The rest of the movie is a wet noodle, too.
Mildred Pierce (1945) Joan Crawford chews the scenery (but what an appetite!) in this strange mix of soap opera and pitch black noir. I must admit to adoring the noir, not so much the soap, but it’s a compelling enough mystery with enough juicy melodramatics to keep the whole thing enjoyable – and not as camp, but at face value.
The House on 92nd Street (1945) A docudrama of this sort, which fawns over its subject matter (in this case, the wartime efforts of the FBI) in a manner that’s practically drooling, runs the risk of being too earnest to actually work – especially if it boasts about how it fills the background with actual agents and actual locations. Despite this, The House on 92nd Street is a solid thriller, especially in its tense final moments. The location filming is used to great effect, creating a sense of urgency and realism a studio lot couldn’t create, making this a fabulous precursor to the shot-in-New York crime dramas of the following decade.
Kings Row (1942) Turns out Kings Row is much more than just the movie where Ronald Reagan screams “Where’s the rest of me?!” (although, yes, that’s a killer scene). I find myself fascinated by the casting of a young Robert Cummings, whose light personality and baby-faced innocence contrast greatly with the darkness that abounds in this story and the town at its center. Much like Peyton Place and a zillion David Lynch projects, Kings Row is pitched as an examination of the sordid truth behind small town America, although this film takes a more sweeping view, covering decades of developments. Like Mildred Pierce, there’s plenty of soapy melodrama to go around, but director Sam Wood manages to keep the sensationalism grounded in our concerns for the characters.
Casting By (2013) There’s so much to the casting process, it’s a shame all we get in the documentary Casting By is something this featherweight. The bulk of the picture focuses on the career of Marion Dougherty, who spent decades in the business (and casted everything from Midnight Cowboy to Batman; her IMDB page is a whopper), which would be great had the filmmakers not opted to merely deliver a greatest hits package using a template where a famous movie is mentioned, a famous actor is interviewed, and the insight boils down to “gee, she sure was smart to cast that future star,” repeat for ninety minutes. We hear plenty of talk about casting directors as creative gatekeepers of a sort yet never see much of the process itself, which leaves the movie too shallow in its all-star revue-ness. The sheer magnitude of quickie behind-the-scenes anecdotes keep things watchable, but only just.
A Date with Judy (1948) One of the great comedies of the 1940s. Great charm, big laughs, and Carmen Miranda!