Will the studio-sanctioned double-feature ever come back?
By Paul Mavis
In these insane days of Weimar Republic hyperinflation and food shortages (you doubt that? Try to buy toilet paper at Costco), that kind of moviegoing value you just can’t find anymore. Back in 1963, two TV star big-screen outings paired up for what must have been a solid night of drama at the local ozoner: the horse track meller, Wall of Noise with Suzanne Pleshette and Ty Hardin, and the political murder mystery, A Fever in the Blood, starring Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., Angie Dickinson, and Jack Kelly. Let’s try and generate the same feeling of “more is better” by combining my two reviews for these Warner Bros. flicks (both out on the WB’s Archive Collection line of M.O.D.s) for a double-header of pretentious movie reviewing hackery!
WALL OF NOISE
“What do you want?”
Wall of Noise, the relatively obscure 1963 romantic drama from Warners about the grittier side of horse racing—and screwing around on the side—starring Suzanne Pleshette, Ty Hardin, Dorothy Provine, Jimmy Murphy, Ralph Meeker, Simon Oakland, and Murray Matheson, and based on a book by Daniel Michael Stein, has an agreeably hard-nosed tone (basically: everyone but everyone uses…and gets used), while giving us a decidedly unglamorous behind-the-scenes look at the cutthroat business of horse racing.
“Gypsy” horse trainer and owner Joel Tarrant (Ty Hardin) is putting everything on the line when his own horse, Frank’s Choice, is to run in a big race at Hollywood Park (where the horses don’t run anymore, sadly…). Tired of moving around, working for others, while he has to make do with less-than-top colts, Tarrant sees a chance in Frank’s Choice that he may not have again: access to the “Winner’s Circle,” and subsequently breaking through to the big leagues.
Helping him out are successful-but-erratic jockey Bud Kelsey (Jimmy Murphy), whom Tarrant weaned off the bottle, and Tarrant’s live-in girlfriend, Ann Conroy (Dorothy Provine), a beautiful lingerie model for whom Bud has always held a torch. Even Ann’s gruff-but-kindly boss, Johnny Papadakis (Simon Oakland), believes in Tarrant; he’s willing to lay down four yards on Frank’s Choice, just on Tarrant’s say-so. But everything goes wrong when principled Tarrant—who hates most of the owners and trainers who carelessly burn-out and destroy horses strictly to win races—excuses the horse on the day of the race, when he believes Frank’s Choice is suffering a minor-yet-potentially-ruinous leg fracture.
Worse, he discovers that Ann didn’t bet their combined savings on Frank’s Choice—a betrayal of faith in his dream and his skills that all-or-nothing Tarrant can’t abide, when he subsequently kicks Ann out. Bud steps in and takes Ann to Florida—all above board, he claims—while Tarrant is pursued first by crude, crass, wealthy construction company owner Matt Rubio (Ralph Meeker), who’s hungry to buy some “class” in the “Winner’s Circle,” with Tarrant as his stable-builder, and second by Laura Rubio (Suzanne Pleshette), Matt’s wife, who’s had enough of Matt’s destructive manipulation. When Laura has Tarrant buy wild stud stallion Escadero, the emotional and sexual paybacks for all concerned begin…with a vengeance.
When you first see who’s in Wall of Noise, and when it was made and who made it, you expect a typically glossy Warner Bros. effort from the early 60s, promising a bit more in terms of adult themes than could be found on more-popular television at the time, when Warners and the other major studios were trying to figure out how to stem the continued fall-off in returns for their once-successful formula genre pictures. Those superficially flashy titles from that time period are usually written off today by reviewers and historians as lame stop-gaps from the conservative studios who at the time still, by and large, stubbornly refused to truly let movies “mature,” if you will—a distressingly popular but dubious elitist theory, anyway, that relegates a lot of worthwhile, entertaining movies into the historical junk pile.
In Warners’ case, I always suspected the studio’s deliberate use of their television contract stars in these big-screen efforts weighted many critical opinions against these outings, which only served to point out the reviewers’ snobbery towards the popular medium. Just from an economic standpoint, it only made sense for Warners to do this with their lower-budgeted movies (particularly when the box office was in such a slump at that time): just as they were the first major studio to successfully break into television production by cannibalizing their backlog of feature films, why not then make inexpensive movies with the new TV stars and contract players they created, for TV fans looking for something a little more adult and risque than they could get on the tube?
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Now, had late-career Delmer Daves made Wall of Noise (which I wouldn’t have minded, either), the glitz and glamour of the location work would have been ramped up considerably (and in saturated color, no doubt), while the hearts and flowers aspect of the central romantic triangles would have been inflated (to please all the teenyboppers and housewives catching this at the drive-ins or afternoon matinees). Here, though, director Richard Wilson (1959’s Al Capone, Invitation to a Gunfighter, Three in the Attic, the Orson Welles documentary, It’s All True) eschews the sparkly mystique we expect to encounter in such an outing, opting instead for a relatively low-key, believable, decidedly more matter-of-fact look at the goings-on at a high-stakes race track.
When Wall of Noise shows us these heretofore unknown doings at the speed track, it’s fascinating like any movie that clues us into a world we’ve never seen before (not only is strategy often discussed—when to race a horse, the factors that contribute to a winner and loser—but Hardin often physically examines his animals, letting us know what’s going on with them in terms of their ability). And not surprisingly, it’s a pretty crappy world back behind the stables, where horses are merely vehicles for personal vanity and venality, as well as pawns in power games between professional rivals and scrapping romantic partners.
In producer/screenwriter Joseph Landon’s (The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond, Von Ryan’s Express) script, everything—horse races and relationships—comes down to the numbers in the end. Everyone uses and gets used here in Wall of Noise, and nobody comes off clean. Provine is ostensibly set up as the “good girl” (even though we’re introduced to her sleeping naked in boyfriend Hardin’s bed), but her “right” choices are wrong in terms of her relationships: she confirms Hardin’s commitment-skittish ways by not believing in him when she doesn’t bet all their money on his last-ditch race. She plays little Bud along even though she knows he wants more, and she agrees to sleep with Oakland to pay off Hardin’s personal loan—a dubious good deed if there ever was one.
Oakland’s rough and tumble modeling agency owner is set-up as a “colorful” character who seems decent deep down (although his reaction to losing a potential $80,000 on Frank’s Choice, callously saying the horse should have been burned in the race because he’s not even worth the four grand he bet, should be a tip-off to viewers). He even advances Hardin a big loan to fix a jam Meeker created; however, when Oakland finally sees his chance, almost at the end of the movie, his true colors show: he sexually blackmails Provine, crudely telling her he’s been waiting a long time to get at her (a solid, satisfying twist at the very end of the movie neatly resolves Provine’s dilemma).
Meeker only seeks to enter racing to buy some “class,” just as he did when he married Pleshette, a once-wealthy society girl whose family lost their money. Described by his wife as an “animal” who really enjoys hurting people, Meeker lies to Hardin about giving the trainer complete control over his stable, undermining Hardin immediately after hiring him (“No wonder you never made it: you got no confidence!” when Hardin resists running and burning out Meeker’s tired horse). When Meeker discovers his wife’s infidelity, her prediction of his “devouring” Hardin comes true. We’re made to sympathize with Pleshette’s plight at being married to such a cruel manipulator (her affair with Hardin is made to seem liberating, particularly when they buy Escadero together, as a team).
However, when push comes to shove, she’ll drop Hardin the minute he doesn’t have the cash to keep her the way she’s used to being kept by Meeker. She lays it out flat: “People use each other, especially people in love,” she warns a bewildered, scrambling Hardin; she’s not going back to poverty…even with the love of her life. And the hero of the story—Hardin, the hard-nosed idealist who doesn’t bet for fun, and who puts a horse’s well-being above all else, falls, too, when he betrays his own treasured image of himself: SPOILER ALERT! he burns Escadero for money to keep Pleshette, and for his own vanity at the chance of becoming a “winner”—neither of which, appropriately enough, come to fruition. Even though Wall of Noise has an outwardly “happy ending” final image, it’s clear the crying Hardin is completely broken over the betrayal of his own ethics.
I wish the director, Richard Wilson (apparently an acolyte of Orson Welles, no less), had been a little more adept with the promising material here; his mise-en-scene is pretty much devoid of any meaning, and his TV-like reliance on close-ups ruins crude but at least potentially interesting exchanges, such at Hardin’s and Pleshette’s first meeting, where suggestive notions of “breeding” versus “performance” are bandied about…to no appreciable effect (perhaps it was the result of budgetary constraints; few cinematographers could best Lucien Ballard at the time, but this has to be one of his least-impressive showings, with flat television lighting and boring frames).
Still, it’s a workmanlike job that doesn’t get in the way of the story’s downbeat tone (Delmer Daves would have made that racetrack world a lot richer, a lot more showily “dramatic,” and a lot more vicariously sensuous…which would have seriously undercut the story). As for those “TV actors” and other B-level stars—they’re just fine here. Ralph Meeker, always best when playing a sleaze, is memorably repulsive as a vicious bully (“Whip him! Whip him! Whip him!” he yells at his own failing horse) who greasily grins, “Turning a pig into a gentleman is supposed to be your job,” to a clearly disgusted Pleshette. Provine, critically, is missing for a big middle section of the movie (a mistake in story construction that robs some dramatic tension from the movie’s final act), but when she’s on, she’s quirkily successful (and a lu-lu in slutty lingerie).
Pleshette, criminally underrated at this point in her career (before she was enshrined in TV history with her sexy-but-safe “good wife” role in The Bob Newhart Show), turns out her usual smoky, smoldering, sexually frustrated housewife role with skill, while the biggest surprise here turns out to be Ty Hardin. Not an actor that was ever taken into serious consideration by the critics, in limited ways, he’s used quite effectively here, with a square-jawed, steely-eyed single-mindedness in his pursuit of the “Winner’s Circle” that works well within Wall of Noise‘s aesthetic framework. You buy his trajectory from principled-but-ruthless two-bit trainer, to “kept” society trainer and lover, to broken, remorseful sell-out. It’s not a “great” performance…but it’s a very good one, in a better-than-expected meller.
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A FEVER IN THE BLOOD
“Politics isn’t a kids’ game—it’s life. Fair’s got nothing to do with it. “
Superficially enjoyable political meller…in spite of itself. Produced and co-scripted (under some duress, apparently) by TV wunderkind Roy Huggins, 1961’s political drama A Fever in the Blood, based on William Pearson’s best-selling potboiler and directed by old pro Vincent Sherman, stars Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., Angie Dickinson, Jack Kelly, Don Ameche, Ray Danton, Herbert Marshall, Andra Martin, Jesse White, Rhodes Reason, Carroll O’Connor, Robert Colbert, June Blair, and Parley Baer. A twisty, sometimes hardnosed combination of political knife fight drama and courtroom suspenser, A Fever in the Blood can’t help but keep you involved…despite the chintzy TV-like production, the flat direction, and the surprisingly poor performances from so many good actors—key drawbacks of which the last two can be laid right at the feet of usually reliable director Sherman.
Wealthy, beautiful, and married-but-separated hot-to-trot “sex maniac” Paula Thornwall (June Blair) wasn’t expecting her hunky gardener Thomas J. Morely (Robert Colbert) to show up in her boudoir unannounced; unfortunately, her displeasure at his appearance only enrages her psycho former lover, who quickly smothers her with a pillow and stages the crime scene as an accidental fire, before he’s briefly spotted by a neighbor fleeing the scene. That’s bad news for Paula’s estranged husband—and the prime suspect in her murder—Walter Thornwall (Rhodes Reason), who just happens to be the nephew of the state’s ex-governor, Oliver P. Thornwall (Herbert Marshall).
Why is that bad news for him? Because Capitol City D.A. Dan Callahan (Jack Kelly) knows this is just the kind of sensational murder trial that could catapult him into the public’s eye…and into the governor’s chair in the upcoming primaries. That’s bad news for Judge Leland Hoffman (Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.), who earlier had offered his old duck hunting buddy Callahan the chance to run as his Lieutenant Governor in Hoffman’s campaign for the governorship. Ambitious Callahan’s bid for governor is bad news for U.S. Senator Alex S. Simon (Don Ameche), a shrewd, amoral political operative who knows that Senators rarely make good Presidents (of course I’m not referring to Grandpa Bumbles!), but that Governors control state party delegates—quite helpful in presidential campaigns.
So when Walter Thornwall’s trial ends up in Judge Hoffman’s court, with Callahan prosecuting, Senator Simon first unsuccessfully appeals to Callahan to forego any campaign for governor…with the promise of his Senate seat as payment. He then, um…suggests that Judge Hoffman declare a mistrial to thwart Callahan…with the promise of a federal judgeship as quid pro quo. Oh, and Senator Simon’s wife, Cathy (Angie Dickinson), has the hots for the judge.
Another 1950s-1960s Warner Bros. gussied-up big-screen feature starring their TV contract players, A Fever in the Blood is certainly an excellent case study—economically and aesthetically—of that unsuccessful tactic of hoping TV stars would draw TV audiences back into the faltering movie houses—a quick, cheap fix to box office woes at the time that, overall, didn’t exactly pay off in big dividends for the studio. In a lengthy Archive of American Television interview, producer/writer Roy Huggins (of Maverick, The Fugitive and The Rockford Files fame) discussed how he came about producing and writing A Fever in the Blood, spending far more time detailing the rancorous backstage dealings with Warners that led up to the assignment, as opposed to one or two brief comments about the actual movie itself (which should give you a clue as to what Huggins thought of the final product).
In brief: physically worn out by TV Western Maverick‘s hectic schedule and troublesome production, and fed up with Warners’ duplicitous economic finagling when it came to remunerating him for his money-making work, Huggins told his bosses he wanted out of Warner Bros. television, to which Jack Warner countered that Huggins could move over into WB’s big-screen features division. Unbeknownst to Huggins (he claimed), the unit he was transferred to was a special division set up to exploit the very TV talent that Huggins helped make famous—a situation that Huggins felt limited his ambitions as a moviemaker. As well, the creative control he was promised didn’t extend very far in reality, including the crucial lack of say-so over casting his own projects.
According to Huggins, he was “given” TV actors like Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. and Jack Kelly, along with other Warner contractees like Angie Dickinson and Ray Danton, against his will, regardless of whether or not they fit the characters in his script for A Fever in the Blood (co-written, the title card states, by Harry Kleiner, of House of Bamboo, Fantastic Voyage, Bullitt, and Extreme Prejudice fame…although Huggins never mentions him in the interview). When A Fever in the Blood failed to impress critics or the public, Huggins finally moved on (several times) to other studios.
It’s impossible, if you haven’t read the source novel, to ascertain how much of a movie’s plot comes from the original work, and how much was invented for the screen (I couldn’t find much of anything on author William Pearson or this particular book), but whoever came up with the storyline of A Fever in the Blood certainly knew how to string together a socko combination of melodramatic events, alloyed with some pungent observations about the amoral nature of politics and justice.
Over and above the already built-in double suspense of who will get the nod to run for governor, and who will prevail in the murder trial, juicy, histrionic revelations come up about every ten minutes or so to further keep the plot pot boiling: Zimbalist used to be Dickinson’s lover, but his invalid wife kept them necessarily apart; Ameche had a heart attack in Mexico, so Dickinson begs Zimbalist not to reveal his bribery attempt; the murder victim had a… “sex mania” with multiple partners; the murder suspect’s mistress scheduled an… “illegal operation;” Kelly’s driver smacks into a kid on the street, and is then told by D.A. Kelly to lie to the cops about the circumstances; Zimbalist, Jr. employs an electronics snoop to bug Kelly, getting the goods on him; and so on, and so on.
Even better is A Fever in the Blood‘s suitably nasty, adult view of politics not as a noble civic duty entered into for the betterment of the public (excuse me while I laugh myself to death)…but rather as an unethical bloodsport for driven individuals who crave only power (the “fever in the blood” of the title). Exceptional movies about American politics are rare—Citizen Kane or more specifically All the King’s Men for earlier entries, or more contemporary to A Fever in the Blood, such as Advise and Consent or The Best Man—and while A Fever in the Blood is far from exceptional, its overwhelmingly bleak view of who the people are who get into government, and how they got there, feels fairly honest. And appropriately dirty.
Episodes like Kelly gleefully orchestrating the arrest of an unsuspecting Reason in front of the lying-in-wait press, or the horse-trading bribes of seasoned player Ameche, backed by dire threats of career ruination (a cheerfully vengeful, smiling Ameche threatens a recalcitrant Kelly, “This is where your political education really begins, Danny boy!”), or Ameche’s perverted view that a corrupt little chiseler like Kelly would ultimately make a better politician for the public because he breaks the rules when necessary, all convey a nicely gritty verisimilitude that illustrates plainly what creeps politicians really, truly are (Every. Last. One. of. Them.).
Too bad, then, that all that promising material is so poorly handled here. Huggins can talk about A Fever in the Blood‘s miscasting all he wants, but that doesn’t excuse a script that comes over certainly as busy…but also patchy and superficial. Characters in particular stay two-dimensional, with their motivations for doing what they do either barely hinted at, or unconvincingly put forth. Kelly’s go-getter D.A., I assume, is ruthless because guys like political operative Carroll O’Connor and Ameche call him “shanty Irish” and a “mick.” Already wealthy Zimbalist, Jr. flatly tells us he has a special problem compared to the poor folk: finding meaning in his life since all his material wants are already met (please sign me up for such a special problem). However, who’s buying that particular “drawback” has somehow led to a “fever in the blood” for politics…when we never hear what he wants to do in politics anyway?
Click to order A Fever in the Blood at Amazon.
Ameche’s sly, feline senator is probably the most believable character—he wants power, and he knows how to get it and use it, simple as that—until an absolutely ridiculous twist has him momentarily ascend from his final trip to Hell—in the best deus ex machina style—and save Zimbalist, Jr.’s bacon for no good earthy reason. As for poor Angie Dickinson’s character, one can only guess what she’s doing here, since the character has but two or three brief, completely superfluous scenes (was she plugged into A Fever in the Blood as a reward for getting chased around a WB executive’s desk, or was it punishment for running too fast? The latter, I suspect…). A solid, intriguing set-up, with a surprising number of good twists and turns in the narrative, can’t entirely save a script that’s weak on characterization and motive.
Nor can such an engrossing plotline long survive tepid, anonymous direction or rather alarmingly miscued performances. Director Vincent Sherman, an old pro at helming palatable studio entertainments (The Return of Doctor X, All Through the Night, The Adventures of Don Juan, Harriet Craig), had, prior to this assignment, directed a big hit for Warners in 1959: the similarly-designed courtroom drama, The Young Philadelphians, with Paul Newman. So naturally Warners must have thought he’d be fine for A Fever in the Blood.
However, Sherman’s approach is so curiously flat and leaden as to make one wonder if he knew all along he’d be very soon trudging off to end his career in serial TV. Indeed, A Fever in the Blood plays exactly like some “bad television” of the time: cheap, pasteboard sets, blanket lighting, uninformed framing (lots of over-the-shoulder close-ups), and 1-2-3 editing rhythms dragging down a talky, static drama. Why in the world did the studio think ticket buyers would line up for essentially television fare such as this, blown up onto a 60 foot screen, if it didn’t transcend the small tube in some small way? There’s nothing in A Fever in the Blood, except for some mildly salacious material, that couldn’t be found on the tube for free—including most of the actors.
What’s puzzling about the predominantly poor performances in A Fever in the Blood is that almost all of the lead actors are first-rate: either grievous miscasting or Sherman’s negligence does them in. Kelly, a skilled light comedian in Maverick, comes over terribly here, in a hammy, overblown turn that’s frankly embarrassing in its amateurish pitch (it’s not surprising Kelly’s big-screen career went nowhere after entries like this). Zimbalist, Jr., always best when he’s quiet and thoughtful, is far too young to pull off a character that’s supposed to have so much legal gravitas…and far too cool and collected to convince me he ever had a “fever” for anything in this world, especially something as ephemeral as politics.
Poor Angie we’ve already picked on (a talented actress whose unstoppable, palpably erotic allure repeatedly upended her performances in subpar after subpar vehicle). Ray Danton, flat out, makes an ass of himself, playing a manic defense attorney who would have been busted within five minutes for contempt of court—not for any legally questionable behavior…but for continually breaking up the astonished, hysterically laughing jury box. Lucky for him another Maverick boy, Robert Colbert, is around to give the comedy performance of 1961, in what has to be the most unintentionally hilarious portrayal of a nervous murderer I’ve ever seen (Colbert on the witness stand, profusely sweating with his eyes darting around like ping pong balls, is sublimely awful—how did anyone on the set keep a straight face after that fit?).
And that leaves the true pros, like Jesse White and Parley Baer and Carroll O’Connor (all fine), and particularly that old smoothy Don Ameche, who walks away with the movie by playing his evil, manipulative, corrupted Senator as if he was inhabiting an arch, bitchy drawing room comedy (that approach tells me he knew exactly how to treat this garbage: as a joke). It’s a marvelously funny turn, making his character all the more repulsive because he’s making us laugh when we shouldn’t. What a pity it wasn’t featured in a better movie.