Trumbo (2015)


I wasn’t expecting to do another Cinema Shame column so soon, but I finally got the chance to catch up on one of the films from 2015 that I’d missed: Trumbo. This was a movie I’d been looking forward to because I love history, and it’s from an era I know a little something about: the Communist scare of the 40s and 50s. I never got to see it in theatres, but it’s now available for home viewing.  So did it meet my expectations? In a word, yes.

Trumbo is the story of novelist and screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (played fantastically by Bryan Cranston), who was one of several screenwriters in Hollywood who were members of the Communist Party. Hollywood was in the midst of a political nightmare as Congress began investigating the influence of the USSR in the movie industry. The industry became divided, and anyone thought to have any ties with Communism were blacklisted and prevented from working. Trumbo, along with 9 other screenwriters, were sentenced to prison for refusing to cooperate with the Congressional investigation.  Conservative members of the movie industry also ensured that anyone who didn’t cooperate would be blacklisted, and would no longer be employable in Hollywood. That was the theory, anyway.

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The main story of Trumbo centers around the fact that Trumbo, in fact, never stopped working; he simply stopped getting credit for his films. When the major studios refused to hire him, he went to work for B-Movie producers Frank and Hymie King (John Goodman and Stephen Root) and became busier than ever. He would farm out the scripts to his fellow blacklisted writers (including Alan Tudyk and Louis C.K.) His family got drafted into his work, including wife Cleo (Diane Lane) and children (his daughter Niki is played by Elle Fanning). The Conservative members of the industry are represented in the film by John Wayne (David James Elliott and Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren). Hopper is very much the main antagonist of the film, constantly on the attack and ready to destroy anyone she saw as unpatriotic. Trumbo’s continued screenwriting became an open secret, and two of his scripts from this period won Academy Awards. Finally, with the help of Kirk Douglas (Dean O’Gorman) and Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel), Trumbo was able to get his own name into the credits, no longer having to hide behind pseudonyms.


It’s hard not to love this movie. The acting is absolutely solid from start to finish, Cranston turns in a tour de force performance as Trumbo. His constant fight against the insidious nature of the Congressional investigations and blacklist is a stance that, given recent events, is very relevant in today’s world. Diane Lane and Elle Fanning put in admirable performances as Trumbo’s wife and daughter, and hold their own against Cranston’s occasionally single-minded focus. As B-Movie maker Frank King, John Goodman has some of the movie’s more memorable moments. Helen Mirren’s Hedda Hopper is also outstanding. Some of the real stars of the movie, though, are those cast as the old Hollywood heavyhitters.

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Dean O’Gorman’s portrayal of Kirk Douglas is uncanny, and his unwavering support for Trumbo and his right to his own credit really kicks the movie up a notch. Christian Berkel’s Otto Preminger is somewhat less intensive as O’Gorman’s Douglas, but he’s still fantastic to watch. The same can also be said for the man playing Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg). Robinson has one of the biggest character arcs in the film; he starts the film as host of a number of Communist meetings in his home, and he eventually becomes another of the blacklist’s many victims. Work dried up for Robinson for years as the studios refused to hire him. In one of the movie’s key moments, the Trumbo family listens to Robinson as he testifies before the HUAC Committee (which he did at least 3 times in reality). They sit there in shock as Robinson denounces a number of people, including Trumbo. A powerful scene. There’s just one problem; it never happened.


Historically, Robinson did appear before HUAC numerous times, and he did denounce former Communist groups he’d been associated with. However, he never once denounced anyone personally as a Communist, and for the film to even suggest that he did is, quite frankly, outrageous. The Communist witchhunts of the 40s and 50s, like any other time where one group is persecuted by another, were horrendous. As a film, Trumbo has a powerful statement to make about how persecution and fear can destroy lives. People were being denounced for what they thought, as opposed to what they did. Some lost careers, while others lost their lives. How Trumbo’s writer and director could try and tell a story like this while at the same time completely misrepresenting a real person’s experiences is beyond me.  The movie deserves better, and we deserve better.

BTW, I feel it’s important to say that all this information I learned about Robinson I learned after watching Trumbo. When I was watching it, I thought nothing about Robinson naming names. I knew it had happened, so it didn’t bother me. That, to me, is the real problem with it; I didn’t even bat an eye when the movie suggested that one of my favourite actors of all time became complicit in the disgusting display of paranoia and hatred that is the blacklist. I just accepted it because the movie told me to. That in itself is an insidious thought.

Cinema Shame Short Subjects- February 2016

With so many movies in my collection unwatched, if I were to do a Cinema Shame post for all of them, I’d never get anything else done.   Also, to be really honest, not every film I watch is going to be worth a whole post to themselves. To that end, welcome to my first compilation post, where I’ll write smaller reviews of the movies I’ve watched.

The Train Robbers (1973)


 This movie has been sitting in my collection for a while now as part of a 5-disc blu-ray collection of John Wayne westerns. What first attracted me to it was the cast, most notably Ann-Margret. It’s the story of a group of cowboys led by Lane (John Wayne), who are hired by a widow (Ann-Margret), to find a lost shipment of gold that her dead husband had buried after a train robbery. The gold has also attracted the attention of every gun in the territory, including Ricardo Montalban.

The Train Robbers has the look and feel of a low-budget movie, or as if John Wayne felt like going out to film a western for a couple of weeks. The cast consists entirely of Wayne’s crew and Montalban; no one else says or does anything significant. In fact, even Montalban doesn’t speak at all until the end of the film. The entire film consists of Wayne and his crew going out to get the gold, and coming back afterwards. Locations are used and reused again and again for the trip out and the trip back, further adding to the low budget feeling.  I’d say it’s not really a bad movie; just a very lightweight, by-the-books movie. Entertaining, but hardly a classic of the genre.


Flaxy Martin (1949)


Next on my watch list was this noir from Warner Archive. Months before she was to play the long-suffering girlfriend of James Cagney in the outstanding White Heat, Virgina Mayo played the titular femme fatale here. Flaxy is the girlfriend of mob lawyer Walter Colby (Zachary Scott). Colby is tired of having to bail out the gunsels of mob boss Hap Richie (Douglas Kennedy), and tells him he’s quitting. Hap, however, has other ideas. When a case-fixing turns into blackmail, Hap, with the help of Flaxy, frames Colby for the murder of the blackmailer. Colby escapes from the train taking him to prison, and, with the help of a librarian (Dorothy Malone), heads back to the city to clear himself.

As the title character, Virginia Mayo is fantastic, very duplicitous and cold-blooded. There’s a scene where Flaxy is leaving a hotel room with a slight smile on her face, knowing a murder was about to be committed. It’s a great character moment, and it shows Mayo deserved her top billing here. Having said that, though, the movie being named after her seems rather strange. Though she is a central character to the plot, the bulk of the movie centers on Zachary Scott’s Walter Colby. This presents a problem because Colby is, quite possibly, one of the worst lawyer characters to ever appear anywhere. When Flaxy comes under suspicion in the murder of the blackmailer, Colby’s idea is to take the rap himself. Seriously. This is only one of the movie’s logical flaws. Colby as a character is simply not as interesting as Flaxy is, and watching him try to extricate himself from the drama is oddly hilarious, which is not something you normally want to see in your film noir. Still, it is a very watchable film, though perhaps not for the reasons the producers intended.


Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958)


The last film I’m going to review today is yet another Warner Archive release. Attack of the 50 Foot Woman is a true classic from the 50s monster movie era, and its poster is certainly one of the most iconic movie posters ever. Allison Hayes is Nancy Archer, the richest woman in town, and also one of the most pitied. Recently released from a mental hospital and a noted drunk, she’s married to a sleazeball named Harry (William Hudson). Harry is having an affair with a local woman (Yvette Vickers), and flaunts her in front of everyone in town. One night, Nancy runs into a spaceship, but no one believes her. To prove she’s not crazy, she goes in search of the ship with Harry. When they find it, the giant creature from the ship goes after Nancy, and Harry abandons her. She later becomes the titular 50 Foot woman, and goes on a rampage.

It’s hard not to love this film. It’s as ‘B’ as a B-movie gets, and there are plot holes aplenty. Harry is certainly one of the worst characters to ever appear in any film. He’s a dick to everyone from his wife to her butler to the sheriff, and no one calls him on it. He keeps on plotting to murder his wife to get her money, to the point where he’s found in her room with a loaded syringe ready to administer an overdose to her, and yet it’s immediately forgotten. Granted, Nancy had suddenly developed into a giant, but you’d think *someone* would question why Harry was in her room in the dark. But alas, they don’t. He just keeps being a dick until the end of the movie. The movie’s climax is also nowhere near as impressive as the poster makes it out to be. Still, there’s a lot of fun to be had with it, and I’m glad I finally got to watch this classic 50s monster movie.



My Cinema Shame – Macao (1952)


It’s obvious that, after 2 years on this site, I suck at the whole scheduling thing. I have hundreds and hundreds of movies in my collection, and I can put together numerous lists of them that I tell myself I’m going to watch, and it’s likely not going to happen. So this year I’m foregoing that aspect of the Shame. Instead, I’m simply going to pull unwatched movies from my stockpile when the mood hits me, watch them, and write about them. To kick off my writing this year, I finally cracked open the Robert Mitchum Signature Collection box set I bought a few months ago for $20.  The set includes 6 of Mitchum’s films, and I decided my first watch would be his 1952 film Macao.


The movie opens with a man being chased through the Macao waterfront by a group of Chinese thugs. He gets knifed in the back and falls into the water dead.  The dead man was a NYC cop, and the thugs work for American casino owner Vincent Halloran (Brad Dexter). Halloran is trapped on Macao because of international warrants for his arrest. His crew includes right hand man Itzumi (Philip Ahn) and moll Margie (Gloria Grahame). They’re all anxious because they’re expecting a runner to come back from Hong Kong with the money from the sale of some jewels. Halloran has someone down at the docks waiting for the ferry.


Meanwhile, on the ferry, we’re introduced to Nick Cochran (Mitchum), a former Naval lieutenant who’s been bouncing around the world for the last 5 years because of some trouble in his past. He meets Julie Benson (Jane Russell) after she hits him with a high heeled shoe accidentally. They both then run into salesman Lawrence C. Trumble (William Bendix). When they arrive in Macao, they immediately attract the attention of Halloran’s man, police Lt. Sebastian (Thomas Gomez). Sebastian is convinced that Cochran is in fact a New York cop who has come to Macao to get Halloran beyond the three-mile territorial limit so he can be arrested.


Everyone I’ve mentioned up to this point are central to the plot of Macao. The film is labelled a Film-Noir (and it does share some of the same features of a Noir), but it’s an exceedingly breezy affair. Clocking in at 81 minutes, the movie never lags, moving quickly towards the end. It’s also very light for a Noir, with some humour (largely due to William Bendix).  This may very well be the result of a change in directors, when producer Howard Hughes fired Josef von Sternberg and turned directing duties over to Nicholas Ray (though von Sternberg’s name remained as sole director in the credits). von Sternberg was, by all accounts, a harsh director, going so far as to ban eating on the set by everyone working on the film. Mitchum, however, ignored this, and always brought food to the set for everyone.


There’s a lot to like about Macao. The performances of the cast are great, and they have an energy that helps the movie go by very quickly. It says something about the performances that you can’t tell that there was discord on the set. The story could have used a bit more polish, but the movie is very enjoyable, and the cast easily overcomes whatever shortcomings there are in the film. It’s definitely not your usual Film Noir, but that’s to its strength, I think. It well deserves a watch or two.