Tuesday, October 21, 2014

CANOA (1976)

A group of young people go out to the countryside, to a place where they don't belong, where the people are suspicious -- and the terror begins. That's one of the more popular tropes of horror cinema for the last fifty years, dating back at least to Herschel Gordon Lewis's Two Thousand Maniacs. You can name plenty of films with the basic formula; change it from young people to just plain people and you can add more to the list. Felipe Cazals's Mexican film -- horrific in tone if not as a matter of genre -- has the advantage over most similar films in being absolutely positively based on real events. In September 1968 an all-male group of university students spent the night in the town of San Miguel Canoa when rain prevented them from climbing the Malinche, a nearby mountain. Political tensions ran high as the Mexico City Olympics approached amid fears of Communist protests and uprisings. Anti-communist hysteria raged in small towns like Canoa, and was magnified in Canoa itself, a community dominated by a reactionary priest (Enrique Lucerno in the film) who ruled the place like a feudal lord or machine boss. In recent sermons the priest had warned that Communist students would invade Canoa and desecrate its church by raising a red flag. Townspeople took the hapless hikers as the vanguard of that revolutionary invasion and took the law into their own hands. A mob a thousand strong lynched four of the students on a rainy night before order was restored.

 

Above: the students seek shelter from the storm.
Below: the storm.


If the subject matter is the stuff of horror, the film itself is closer to the Mondo or mockumentary genre. Cazals and screenwriter Tomas Perez Torrent claim to present events as they happens while breaking the fourth wall by having a nameless Witness  (Salvador Sanchez) make occasional comments to the camera. Sometimes the Witness corrects or subverts what purports to be official information about the local economy. Other characters sometimes address the camera, explaining who runs the town and how they exploit the poor, but the Witness always takes a more aloof, cynical tone. As the film goes on, he comes to embody all those who knew how bad things were already and how bad they'd become for the outsiders, yet did nothing about it, perhaps preferring to judge than to act.


The Witness is all talk and no action; the Priest has a mob to take action for him.


Cazals' quest for verisimilitude renders some parts of the picture almost painfully dull, especially the scenes introducing the students in all their banal innocence. Once the hikers reach Canoa, however, the film acquires a relentless momentum, aided by all the artfulness Cazals and cinematographer Alex Phillips Jr. have to work with. Canoa is sometimes described as a pseudo or semi-documentary, but Cazals never employs the gimmickry of cinema faux-vérité. Instead of shaky handheld footage identified with Paul Greengrass -- whose Bloody Sunday is an obvious point of comparison -- the location shoot is often classically composed, and the imagery, from the doom-laded rain that traps the hikers in the town to the archetypal scenes of peasants (who look more like cowboys) swarming through the streets with torches, often looks quite consciously impressionistic. It certainly conveys a mounting impression of dread as the real storm waits to break. The climax is the worst of all worlds: fear of the primitive (or the "redneck") on the scale of a zombie horde attack. When the mob finds its targets, including a townsman who tries to protect one group of students, the violence is abruptly brutal without being exploitative. I haven't watched enough horror movies this October, but Canoa goes a long way toward making up for it.


A visual joke, perhaps: an alleged Communist menaced by a symbolic sickle

Some critics have suggested that the film is a partial whitewash, since it seems to single out the tyrannical priest for blame while underplaying the role of the Mexican government and establishment in whipping up the anti-student hysteria. By having government forces come to the rescue of the remaining students, Canoa supposedly isolates the town and its little despot as bad apples rather than symptoms of something systemic, when in fact a far bloodier massacre of students took place in Mexico City itself a few weeks later. An early scene jumps forward in time to an urban funeral procession for some of the students. It's intercut to appear on a collision course with a group of marching soldiers, but when the lines meet they actually curve away from one another without incident. I've seen this interpreted as a victory for peace and order, but it could just as readily be interpreted as the two groups failing to communicate or dodging an essential issue. Likewise, at the end we see a religious festival in Canoa shortly after the rampage. The camera finds our Witness, who doesn't seem to feel like talking right then. He runs up a flight of stairs to find another documentary crew filming, and runs right back down. He turns his face from our camera before shamefacedly offering some final worthless words. Canoa may not tell the full truth of the slaughter, but the filmmakers seem to acknowledge that a full reckoning with what the massacre meant was still yet to come. But leaving the politics out, audiences anywhere should recognize the pure horror of what Cazals shows us. On some level, Canoa is a kind of masterpiece that should be better known than it is worldwide -- just as the events it shows should be.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

DVR Diary: SAFARI (1956)


A white man loses a close family member to hostile natives and pursues a path of vengeance. The Searchers, right? That's the right year, at least, and it's worth remembering that while American movie buffs today may see the John Ford film as a reflection on America's exceptional history of violent settlement and native resistance, audiences in 1956 probably understood that scenes like those in Searchers were taking place in their present day. Terence Young's picture wasn't the first to address the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya, and Americans could read about it in newspapers and magazines, in fact and fiction. They clearly empathized with the embattled British -- we're more likely to recognize the Mau Mau as freedom fighters not -- or projected themselves facing the tribal charge again. That's why it made sense for the British producers (including future Bond mogul Albert R. Broccoli) to make their hero an American white hunter (Victor Mature). Ken Duffield is on safari when the Mau Mau hit his farm; one of his own workers betrays the rest of the household to the insurgents, and becomes a leader after shooting down Duffield's boy. Ken is ready to go after the Mau Mau himself, but give credit to the British; they don't need a loose cannon like the American running around, so the colonial authorities revoke his hunting license, effectively excluding him from the territory where the insurgents operate.

The power of money threatens to disrupt the shaky order when Sir Vincent Brampton (Roland Culver) uses his influence to get Duffield's license restored. He wants Ken to guide him into lion country so he can take a shot at the legendary "Hatari." Ken, of course, is glad for the opportunity to do some hunting of his own on the side. He finds the arrogant Brampton and his glamorous girlfriend Linda (Janet Leigh) little more than nuisances he must tolerate to further his own mission. Both Duffield and Brampton harken back to literature's great obsessive hunter, Captain Ahab (also the subject of a 1956 film), but Brampton is a trivialized Ahab, interested in Hatari only for the prestige of killing the lion and more like the owners of the Pequod whose mercenary relationship with their captain is subverted by the skipper's too-personal agenda. This analysis can go too far, however, and make Safari seem like a better film than it is. The ingredients of a better film are there but Young and writer Anthony Veiller lose focus while throwing in too many jungle-peril cliches, though now the animals stalk in Cinemascope, while the climactic Mau Mau attacks are implausibly one-sided slaughters, the insurgents charging on foot by the dozens across open ground, armed with no better than machetes, while the whites and their native helpers -- safari workers or local police, mow them down with firearms and finally with Mature's machine gun. An inevitable romance between Mature and Leigh also dilutes the archetype, though Leigh does seem to be having fun with her role and certainly enlivens the look of the film. Finally, like Ethan Edwards, Ken Duffield is saved by having his vengeance denied, as another character takes out his treacherous houseboy. More fortunate than Edwards, he can look forward to starting a new family, complete with a surrogate son, arguably, in a friendly native boy. That's ironic given that British rule in Kenya really was near the end of the line, but Americans may not have suspected that at the time or, projecting their own frontier in the African landscape, they didn't really care. Safari's weakness is that the moral stakes never seem as high as they should be given the revenge setup. Duffield isn't written, and Mature doesn't play him as monomaniacal as he could or should have been. Nor does race hatred become an issue here, as obviously it could have, and as it does so memorably in Searchers. Duffield's profession probably makes it impossible; as a white hunter he can't refuse to have dealings with blacks or abuse those who still work for him. But that lack of rancor leaves Duffield too dispassionate a character to carry the archetypal weight he seems designed for. It may be unfair to compare Safari to Searchers, but there are enough similarities that you can't help thinking that what Searchers did right, Safari should have, too.

I had a moment of recognition when I watched Safari. The theme song, "We're On Safari" rang a bell deep in my memory, reminding me that I had seen the movie several time before when I was a child. I should say that the movie was on TV in my house, since I was usually preoccupied with homework or casual reading, but I remembered that song distinctly and felt the slightest pang of nostalgia on hearing it again. I wish I could put a sound clip up, but I couldn't find it on the internet. You'll have to search it out yourselves.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

DVR Diary: DUEL FOR GOLD (1971)

It's so uncommon to see a Chinese martial arts picture without any sympathetic characters -- one in which all the principal characters are rats -- that it's still shocking to find one, for me at least. And here's a Shaw Bros. production directed by Chu Yuan that seems heavily inspired by westerns -- not just contemporary spaghetti westerns, as you might expect, but the darker American "adult" westerns of the 1940s and 1950s. Duel For Gold reminded me of Duel in the Sun, not just for the title but also with its spoken prologue foredooming all the characters and its no-survivors climax, and it reminded me of the less well-known Lust For Gold, possibly the most amoral American western of its era. Whoever gave the film its English title (if it isn't a literal translation of "huo bing") may have had exactly those films in mind. There's a little bit of caper movie in it, too, if your idea of a caper is for a protagonist to massacre all his or her accomplices. The general idea seems to be that people are evil, and martial arts make them worse.

It opens playfully enough with a sister act giving an open-air show of their martial prowess. The ladies have incredible balance and superhuman strength; one can hold the whole weight of her sister's body, upside down and sword out, on the point of her own sword. The crowd's wonder turns to horror as the girls inexcusably fail to clear the prop blocks they chopped to show off their swords' sharpness out of their way as they tumble. One of the sisters manages to fall on her own sword and is taken to the local treasury for first aid. However, security guard Wen (Chun Chen) finds this accident suspicious. In China's martial world these security guards are like freelance marshals of the Old West, tough men entrusted with the wealth and property of others. Wen quickly exposes the sisters' trick; they'd staged the accident in order to case the place, where they most likely know a big stash of gold will be waiting for a big merchant. It's a good thing Wen's around, because his small army of assistants is useless against the sisters' fighting skills, while he seems capable of handling both of them at once. He drives them away, but they're only the start of his problems. Lurking in town is Teng Chi Yan, the "Long Shadow" (Lo Lieh), who simply radiates menace. Meanwhile, the sisters have help for whatever their plan may be, but they have to keep an eye on the interloper Teng Chi Yan as well.

The crooks manage to lure Wen into another fight and to injure him enough that he's out of action while the big merchant paints the town red. The merchant turns out to be an impostor, however, and one of the gang. Invited to tour the mint by obsequious officials, the impostor takes out a bunch of guards, signalling an all-out attack by the crooks' own small army of all-too expendable minions. Those the guards don't kill, the lead thieves eliminate themselves. The fewer to share the loot, the better; that principle is carried out mercilessly until lovers and sisters -- not to mention one unexpected contestant -- fight a round-robin battle in a cemetery, each fighter in turn offering a deal to his or her antagonist,only to have it rejected. And of course, we've already been told how it all turns out, though there is one blackly ironic twist left for the narrator to relate.

The final fight is a brutal affair in the "kill 'em all" fashion then prevailing around the world, and the carnage effects seem less cartoonish, more bluntly brutal, than they often appear in more heroic fare. That's some sort of tribute to Chu Yuan and the overall production design. The action is well directed and choreographed. In one impressive shot, one of the sister knocks a guard out of the frame to the right, but the camera follows his tumble and catches the other sister routing more foes. The actors are as good as English dubbing permits -- I saw this on the El Rey network -- while Lo Lieh is effortlessly good as the threatening mystery man regardless of his surrogate voice. Duel For Gold might be best described as a slapstick black comedy. Like much slapstick, it revels in transgression but makes sure to punish the transgressors at the end, lest the audience regret their thrills. It may think itself dark, but it's really fun to watch if you don't judge the characters too harshly, as fate already has.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Real Pulp Fiction: Theodore Roscoe, "That Son of a Gun Columbo," ARGOSY, Sept. 22, 1934

Let's observe Columbus Day with what might be the most representative sample from the pen of prolific pulpster Theodore Roscoe. The title is the title or lyric of a popular song, as is the case in Roscoe's small town-gothic Four Corners stories. It has a narrator daring his audience to disbelieve his tale, as in the Thibaut Corday series of Foreign Legion fantasies. And it has a hint of the undead, as Roscoe made a specialty of hinting at, teasing us with the prospect of Columbus as a zombie.

As I implied, this is an old-school indirect narrative, in that Roscoe doesn't drop us directly into the main story, but instead introduces his narrator as a character facing the skepticism of his hearers. In this case one McCord, an American engineer working in Haiti, tells his colleagues that the wreck of the Santa Maria can be found upriver, and then describes his personal encounter with Columbus himself. Back in 1913, when he was just starting out in Haiti, McCord met a Professor Upchurch, who wanted to go upriver to find the Santa Maria. Upchurch has a theory that Columbus died in Haiti, abandoned by his colleague/rival Martin Pinzon, who then delivered an impostor to be imprisoned in Spain and die the death assigned to Columbus by history. Upchurch, and Roscoe, have no romantic illusions about the great explorer.

The poor, meek Indians, they were harmless as pigeons, you know. They thought the white men had come from heaven, but they soon found out differently. My, yes! The Spanish didn't have any use for them and set about exterminating them most thoroughly. So thoroughly that there wasn't a handful left alive a hundred years later, and today they're extinct. The poor Indians were taken as slaves and their women were meek and good looking -- it isn't the chapter on Columbus they like to teach in public schools.

 

Thus Theodore Roscoe, revisionist. Moving on, Upchurch offers McCord $1,000 -- multiply that by something like twenty to get the value today -- to guide him upriver. Their trek is complicated by the reported presence in the jungle of a fugitive from the U.S., someone with the same theory about Columbus as Upchurch, but also convinced that the Santa Maria carried gold to be salvaged. Soon enough, this "Blackbeard" is on our protagonists' trail, which leads to strange places. At the end of the trail waits a "living mummy," the supposed last of the Arawack tribe -- the people doomed by their encounter with Columbus. "Your average Indian is about as wordy as his twin in front of a cigar store," McCord narrates, "but this fellow wasn't the ordinary five-cent brand. Not by a jugful! That blind mummy was the Grand Kleagle of storytellers, and he held us like flies in the moon-spun web of his yarn."

Guacanagri tells of the coming long ago of "two great sea birds [with] wings that shut out the sun, and shiny men on their backs to fold those wings." The shiny men kidnap the king's daughter and torture her for knowledge of gold, of which the Arawacks had none. Divine intervention drives the invaders to wander to their deaths in search of gold, but Guacanagri relates, in McCord's words, that "they had to keep going even after they were dead. Dead men must find graves, and those dead strangers couldn't find a cemetery."

For a professor, Upchurch is slow on the uptake. It's not until Guacanagri identifies the leader of the shiny men as "Don Cristoval" that the academic realizes that the "mummy" means Columbus and seems to be confirming his own hypothesis. McCord finds the whole thing hard to believe, but out of no where appears a man in a 15th century Spanish uniform.


"This Spaniard was from the day before yesterday," McCord narrates, "From just about five hundred years before!" The old boy bolts at the sight of our moderns, and a hysterical Upchurch leads McCord on a mad chase climaxing with their discovery of the Santa Maria, complete with crew, captive princess, and Admiral of the Ocean Sea. Implausibly moved by Guacanagri's tale of oppression, Upchurch goes berserk at what looks like a ghostly reenactment of Columbus's atrocities. Finally, McCord must confront the great man one-on-one, horrified at the thought of fighting someone already dead....

Could this be true? Of course not! It's all just a story -- but in the story, could it have happened as McCord says? I'll leave you with this link to find out for yourselves. "That Son of a Gun" is Roscoe in fine form, engaged in hard-boiled spookifying. It's a pretty sweeping adventure in 26 pages and gives some sense of the fun of pulp, even if you have to hold your nose at some racist lines, even as Roscoe takes what looks like today's "politically correct" line on Columbus. Just as he refuses to sugarcoat the Columbus story, so we should take Roscoe and his fellow pulpsters straight, the better to understand how they and their readers saw the world in their time.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

On the Big Screen: GONE GIRL (2014)

The fall movie season for 2014 is under way, and it has a formidable fall from last year to live up to. This season, when studios aspire nearly as much to awards as to ticket sales, opened with the new film from David Fincher, an adaptation by author Gillian Flynn of her ongoing best-selling novel. Fincher has made some of the most memorable and some of the plain best films of the last twenty years, with Zodiac and The Social Network my personal favorites and the earlier Se7en and Fight Club enduring as pop-culture milestones. He's also made one film, The Game, that left me wanting to throw things at the movie screen. Gone Girl never infuriated me that much but it did annoy me a bit. As everyone must know by now, it deals with a man (Ben Affleck) whose wife (Rosamund Pike) disappears, an event for which he is blamed as her assumed murderer. He becomes "the most hated man in America," condemned in advance by a Nancy Grace-like TV host, if not also by the local police. His sudden infamy makes him part a Hitchcockian hero, and part Capraesque: a cinderella man in peril. The spectacle of his media ordeal is the best part of the film, but Fincher keeps cutting away to flashbacks narrated by Pike from her character's diary, charting the rise and fall of the couple's romance. This sort of back-and-forth filmmaking grows tiresome, and in this particular case it proves to be a cheat, a trick on the audience rather than on any of the characters in the film. I sort of saw that twist coming, but the idea that Flynn and Fincher were trying to trick me turned me against the movie, which visually is a fine thing to watch. It's recognizably a Fincer film, and that's a good thing inclusive of the Trent Reznor-Atticus Cross score. But the film gets out of his control as Flynn's story grows more trashily over the top. At first I thought we'd get something in the Fargo line, in which a master criminal proves less masterful than assumed, but that idea goes off the rails once we enter Neil Patrick Harris's mansion and see his clueless suitor victimized in extravagantly gory fashion. By this point the movie has become a tale of implausible obsessions and contrived motivations anticlimaxing in a non-ending that leaves our hero looking contemptible. It's a thankless part for Affleck, yet one that panders to lingering contempt for the actor-director. A genuine comic highlight of the picture plays off the Affleck stereotype: his lawyer (Tyler "Madea" Perry in a rare foray outside his own cinematic universe) while rehearsing our hero for his first TV interview hits him in the face with a gummy bear. He'll do that every time Affleck looks or sounds smug, and despite our hero's best efforts he ends up pummeled with candy. That lighter tone might have come in handy later. Instead, the prevailing tone is of misanthropy -- not merely misogyny as some knee-jerk critics claim -- unredeemed by wit. I've kept this short in an attempt to avoid spoilers, since there's no reason to see it other than to be surprised by its twists. I suppose I could spoil it if I wanted people to stay away, but viewers, especially those familiar with the novel, may be more sympathetic with Flynn's mood and should judge Fincher's film for themselves. I found it a disappointing start to the fall season, but the posters and trailers at the theater promise better things to come.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Real Pulp Fiction: ARGOSY, SEPTEMBER 30, 1939

The devil of William Du Bois's serial, this week's cover story, is a veteran gossip columnist who's about to release a highly-publicized memoir. The ballyhoo in his paper, which is serializing the memoir, hints at reputations that may be ruined by the author's revelations. This first installment introduces a number of likely-to-be-offended people, along with another reporter who'll become our protagonist. You can see a whodunit being set up, and the only surprise is that someone besides the memoirist gets whacked. Instead, it's the newspaper's publisher who gets dumped out a window, while the manuscript of the memoir, delivered alarmingly close to deadline, is stolen. Du Bois tells it in hardboiled-newsman mode, as is only appropriate, and that makes The Devil's Diary entertaining so far.



In the other serials, Theodore Roscoe deepens the mystery of Remember Tomorrow by giving more details of the deaths blamed on the undead armies of the Battle of the Somme: they seem to have died in ways unique to the war, including one death by poison gas. By now there's an international cast of the living at the Chateau de Feu, a cross-section of Europe at the brink of the next war, along with our American mystery-writer protagonist. By this point things could go either way: it could be a supernatural phenomenon or it could be an elaborate fake-out; time and more chapters will tell. In the second installment of Eando (Earl and Otto) Binder's Lords of Creation, the glimmer of hope our hero saw last week, the airplane hinting at the survival of civilization in the far future in which he woke up, is belied when the plane delivers a delegation from "Antarka" demanding tribute from the near-Stone Age people of "Norak,"the old New York. The imperious Antarkans are the Lords of Creation, taking tribute in raw materials and human "helpers." This outrages our hero; the future, already dystopian due to the exhaustion of metal ores and the resulting technological decline, grows worse when he sees the world divided between masters and slaves. But the people among whom he lives are complacent, or else preoccupied with petty local wars with other tribes. Our protagonist decides to change the future, proposing to harvest metals from the ruins of New York City to even the odds, or at first to give his people the edge (of metal blades) over their local enemies.


The big name among this issue's stand-alone authors is Georges Surdez, the pulps' king of Foreign Legion fiction. The nearest thing Surdez has to a claim to fame today is his popularization, if not his outright invention of the deadly game of Russian Roulette in a 1937 Collier's short story of that title. It was something they did in the Legion, I guess -- or so Surdez claimed. As the Collier's credit indicates, Surdez was a writer who moved freely between the pulps and the so-called slicks like Collier's and the Saturday Evening Post. His shorter work usually went to the slicks while novelettes went to the pulps; since "The Blood Call" is a short story, it may have been rejected by Collier's before Argosy took it. Like many Foreign Legion stories, it focuses on a Legionnaire with a past. In this case, a German Legionnaire tries to provoke a duel with his commanding officer in his odd attempt to atone for having killed the commander's brother, a flier, during the Great War. All of this is told in flashback form, to explain to a visitor why the commander gives money generously to a drunken soldier; his idea is that the man who killed his brother should be worthy of him, not a beggar. The story's too short to be one of Surdez's better tales, but it definitely gives the flavor of his work.



The other headline writer this week is Ralph R. Perry, whose "Big Gun From Texas" is a mystery about horse-stealing, with the requisite gunplay involved. Richard Sale contributes "No Patriot There," one of his series of "what really happened" Civil War stories, this time involving a Virginia boy who, despite the histories you may have read, killed John Wilkes Booth. Harry Bedwell, a railroad-story specialist, gives us "Take 'Em Away, McCoy," about an engineer fighting Mexican bandits while dealing with his fiery Mexican girlfriend's jealousy of his affection for his engine. Not as funny as Bedwell thought, sad to say. Finally, Walter C. Brown takes a vacation from Chinatown and travels to the Dutch East Indies for "Savage Quest," but while the setting has changed, Brown's macabre racism still pervades the piece. This story also proves Brown an equal-opportunity offender when it comes to writing accents, since the story's cruel Dutch trader is saddled with a vaudeville accent. The actual protagonist is a Dyak tribesman who proves almost inexplicably loyal to the Dutch brute, protecting him from all menaces until Brown finally explains the savage's protective attitude. Suffice it to say that he doesn't really have the Dutchman's long-term interests at heart. This is a solid issue overall, with all the serials entertaining and points of interest in all the stand-alones. I'm going to take a couple of weeks off from the 1939 Argosy series, but I plan to be back in time for the conclusions of all the serials, in case I've kept anyone hanging. In the meantime, I may regale you with some items from my personal pulp collection -- so this is still TO BE CONTINUED.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Pre-Code Parade: THEY CALL IT SIN (1932)

Loretta Young faces a terrible dilemma in this Warner Bros. production directed by Thornton Freeland: her character must choose romantically between David Manners and George Brent, two of the real stiffs among leading men of the era. Manners, who lives in infamy as Jonathan Harker in the Tod Browning Dracula, plays the archetypal traveling salesman, albeit in a higher social circle. Despite his engagement to the boss's daughter (Helen Vinson), Jimmy Decker falls for the lovely young church organist in the small town he's stuck in one weekend. "I'm just the farmer's daughter," Loretta Young says prophetically, but everything Marion Cullen knows about her life is wrong. Why does she rebel against her rustic parents, and why does her rebellion take musical form? Because they're not her parents; they adopted her after the death of her birth mother, a single woman and an entertainer. Her ability to improvise on the organ after services proves that blood will tell and, resentful of the folks' opposition to her dalliance with Decker, she runs away to the big city, where she hopes to look him up if not hook up with him. When Jimmy finally fesses up to his engagement, Marion cuts him dead, resolving to make it on her own.

A few weeks later, Marion has applied for work everywhere and gotten nowhere. She hopes to audition for the new show put on by producer Ford Humphries (Louis Calhern) but his secretary sends everyone home after one applicant slinks out of his office with what might be described as a sort of arrogant shame. Fortunately, Marion's sitting next to Dixie Dare (Una Merkel), who never takes "go home" for an answer. Dixie is an eccentric dancer who's at once aggressive and lazy, somehow inflicting herself on Humphries's attention yet unwilling to demonstrate her specialty cartwheels as she auditions. No matter; Humphries is more interested in Dixie's new sidekick, who fills in on the rehearsal-room piano after the regular man has gone home. Humphries hires Marion as a rehearsal pianist for his new show and promises to "find something" for Dixie, who in gratitude takes the almost-homeless Marion in as her roomie.

They Call It Sin is like a backstage musical without the musical numbers as Dixie annoys the director with her refusal to cartwheel during rehearsals while Marion makes more of an impression with her music. Meanwhile, Marion starts a relationship with one of Jimmy Decker's cronies, Dr. Tony Travers (Brent), who got her out of Jimmy's apartment earlier to avoid an embarrassing encounter with Jimmy's fiancee. Even after the fiancee becomes his wife, Jimmy still carries a torch for Marion and tells her so in front of Humphries, who's starting to feel left out. He fires Marion, then fires Dixie after she stands up for Marion. Then he commits plagiarism, taking a songwriting credit for a tune Marion wrote. Jimmy steps in to press Marion's intellectual-property claims upon Humphries, confronting the drunken producer in his high-rise apartment. Once we have a drunk and a balcony, I think you can guess the rest.

Marion knew Jimmy was going to see Humphries, assumes the worst and tries to take the blame for it the way people do in movies. However, she hasn't reckoned with the medical powers of Dr. Travers. Told that Humphries can live but a few minutes longer with his fractures skull -- he didn't fall all the way down but landed on a lower balcony -- the good doctor takes heroic measures to restore the doomed man to consciousness long enough for an ante-mortem interview. Humphries hangs on long enough to get both Marion and Jimmy off the hook, confessing to his own clumsiness before taking his final bow. Now comes that dreadful choice I mentioned earlier. Jimmy is willing to break up with his wife if Marion wants him, but then again there's Dr. Travers, who kept her out of jail. I'd say Manners is slightly the better looker than Brent but the latter may have the slight edge in charisma. In the end, the script decides....

It says something about the Pre-Code era that some reviewers, and presumably more spectators, didn't find this picture very sinful at all.


What's missing is any real sensuality, what with Brent and Manners hovering heavily over the proceedings, though Una Merkel provides the almost-mandatory lingerie shots to keep things slightly spicy. She provides nearly all the comedy amid all the near-tragedies of the story. Ironically, she closes the show with a quasi-orgasmic private dance, complete with cartwheels, to celebrate the heroine's ultimate romantic choice. Merkel steals the picture from Loretta Young whenever she's on screen, but to be fair to Young hers was a relatively thankless starring role, given her suitors. In any event, small town girl makes good, and if there was any sin involved -- the Spokane reviewer clipped above seems doubtful -- she doesn't suffer much for it. It'd be hard no matter what for a picture to live up to that perfect Pre-Code title, but even with all its handicaps They Call it Sin could've been much worse, and the mild praise from Spokane seems just about right.