June 13, 2009

MIAMI EXPOSÉ (1956)




Sun drenched.


By the mid 50s it seems that film noir had moved south in search of better weather. Despite the vacation locale, had Miami Exposé been shot just five years earlier, the result would have appeared darker, drearier, and smelled a little less like coconut oil. Times change and film styles change with them, so in lieu of the Kefauver senate investigation into organized crime and its growing hold on major American cities, as well as Hollywood’s new propensity to make the government happy, the subject matter of films that had previously been steeped in the noir tradition became brighter and more oriented to rooting out corruption on a large scale, as opposed to films that had theretofore more concerned with the struggles of the lone individual against an oppressive and fatalistic system.


If there was a strong holdover as film noir evolved into.......something else, it was the cynicism — at least as far as cops are concerned. In the 1940s film noir transposed the cynical detective of the pulp novel to the big screen, where he prospered, and has more or less been going strong ever since. In the late 50s noir went into hibernation for a decade and a half, more or less, and reemerged with new vitality in characters such as Popeye Doyle and Eddie Coyle. Though I tend to think of him as a poor man’s Robert Mitchum (with not an iota of disrespect to either man intended), Lee J. Cobb was perfectly suited for cop roles in the 50s. Tough, cynical, perpetually tired, yet still likable, (remember that Arthur Miller wrote Willie Loman for him) Cobb injected gravity into every part he played. His personal life caught up with his screen persona at the time — he was called to testify before HUAC in 1953, and like so many others he named names in order to save his career, though the scars of having done so were permanent. Just a few months prior to making Miami Exposé, Cobb had to be removed from the production of William Castle’s The Houston Story, when he was too exhausted to finish his scenes and had to be rushed to the hospital with symptoms of a heart attack. It would actually be a heart attack that killed Cobb in 1976 at the relatively young age of 64. He does for Miami Exposé what Dan Duryea does for World for Ransom — without him, it just wouldn’t be worth the time.


The big problem with Miami Exposé is that it shoots off like a rocket, fizzles, and plummets back to earth. The film is introduced by, of all people, the mayor of Miami, Randy Christmas. He speaks to the audience from behind his desk (adorned with brass placard reading “Mayor Christmas”), with an air that I’m certain he hoped was presidential, or at least gubernatorial, about the creeping terror of organized crime, no longer confined to just New York and Chicago. The film then cuts to aerial footage of Florida cities, while a narrator describes the current economic climate and population boom in the Sunshine State. He speaks directly to the viewer, and rattles off statistics about interstate highways and vacation dollars as the scene vacillates between sandy beaches, pleasure boats, and the recurring shot of a commuter plane winging its way to South Beach. His closing remarks are a harsh reprimand: “Yes, you should have thought about these statistics, they might have saved your life!” As the passenger plane suddenly explodes into a million pieces, leaving viewers quite startled just as the titles finally appear on the screen. An auspicious start full of sensationalism that the film fails to maintain longer than the opening titles.


We learn later that the plane was blown up by the mob, at the cost of all 41 passengers and crew, in order to eliminate a single man who stood in the way of a plan to legalize gambling in the state. This sort of overkill, especially the kind that involved the murder of civilians, was a popular story device in films such as this one. Whether an airline crash, an apartment fire, gas explosion, or smallpox outbreak, filmmakers were always certain to show that the actions of the racketeers were deadly where the general population was concerned. The strangest aspect of the film is the casting choice of Alan Napier for the leader of the mob. He’s the man behind the plan to manipulate the ballot provision that would legalize gambling, and then gain control of those rackets, making Miami the Las Vegas of the east, and him the boss. Most people will remember Napier as Bruce Wayne’s butler Alfred from the campy Batman television series, but that aside, it strains credibility to think that the head of the criminal organization in the film, of which all the hoods are typical filmdom Mafioso, is a genteel bespectacled Englishman. The excuse given is that he learned that rackets through decades as a scum bag defense attorney, but it just doesn’t play given all we know about how the real Sicilian mobs actually operated.


Cobb’s part of story is more laden with cop clichés than Swiss cheese is with holes: He’s set to retire from the force, but his partner is killed, which sucks him in deeper than ever before. It turns out someone saw the killing, and it’s a she. She’s the ex-showgirl moll of a gangster, and she’s scared to death that her name is now on the hit list. Cobb has to protect her, but the two can’t seem to get along. He hides her in a shack in the Everglades, but the pinstripe suits find out where and swoop in via a commandeered fan-boat. Cobb shows up in the nick of time, Tommy gun blasting, and saves the day. All of the derivative pieces of the story would add up to something unwatchable were it not for the surprisingly good technical filmmaking. The film positively glitters with daylight — and on location shooting in Miami, even a few scenes in Havana, provides an interesting respite from Hollywood back lots and dreary Manhattan streets. Car lovers will find much to enjoy here — there aren’t really any chases in the film, though there are unlimited shots of Cobb and other characters driving from place to place in shiny Buick and Cadillac convertibles.


Patricia Medina, who was married to Joseph Cotten for more than thirty years, plays the girl. It’s surprising to learn she was British, considering she did American so well in this film. Medina is a real bright spot, it’s a shame she wasn’t better known, though she did have a long and active career in Hollywood. In looks and style she evokes Jane Russell. Also notable is the presence of Edward Arnold in his final film appearance. As others have noted, it’s unfortunate that this film was his last, as his part isn’t a good one — he’s a political stooge and a sap — and he looks totally spent in the film. A job’s a job, but it’s only out of respect for his great career that the word pathetic isn’t used. Score one for Eddie though, in spite of his sad part in the film, he obviously still had the star power to rate the lion’s share of the movie poster — his huge face leers down at Medina’s swimsuited cleavage.


Miami Exposé is a cookie cutter film from a cookie cutter period in filmmaking. However it does provide a glimpse into the heavy handed way Hollywood responded the political happenings of the Eisenhower era, and the painful diminishment of the film noir style.

TCM Clip Three


Miami Exposé (1956)

stripe
Director: Fred F. Sears
Cinematographer: Ben Kline
Screenplay: Robert E. Kent
Starring: Lee J. Cobb, Patricia Medina, Edward Arnold, and Alan Napier.
Released by: Columbia Pictures
Running time: 73 minutes

4 comments:

  1. Aaargh! I missed this a couple weeks ago when it was on TCM! Location shooting in Miami corca 1951...Maybe next time...

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  2. That should've been "circa"...

    The 1967-68 Frank Sinatra movies TONY ROME and LADY IN CEMENT are two great examples of on-location shooting, but to see Miami during its Golden Age must've been something.

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  3. That was when I caught it, thank heavens for the DVR. Thanks for mentioning the Sinatra films -- they were shot by Joe Biroc, who also did World for Ransom (my previous post). Cheers!

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