Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Man Who Wasn’t There: Wendell Corey, Actor

In September and early October, the PFA had a program featuring Wendell Corey films.  Wendell Corey is not an actor whose name is instantly recognizable but I remember him from some great films.  My favorite Wendell Corey film is Hell's Half Acre which played at the 2009 Noir City.  That film was on the PFA program as well as a few other Corey films I have seen and enjoyed before:  Harriet CraigThe Rainmaker and Sorry, Wrong Number.

I saw two films in the series.  I regret missing Robert Aldrich's The Big Knife (1956).

My Man and I starring Shelley Winters & Ricardo Montalbán; with Wendell Corey & Claire Trevor; directed by William Wellman; (1952)
The Killer Is Loose starring Wendell Corey, Joseph Cotten & Rhonda Fleming; directed by Budd Boetticher; (1956)

In My Man and I, Ricardo Montalbán plays Chu Chu Ramirez, a hard-working Mexican immigrant in the Central Valley.  I grew up in Texas, along the Mexican border, and I never heard of guy named Chu Chu (pronounced choo-choo).  I have met men named Chuy (pronounced chewy) and of course, there is a famous Mexican golfer named Chi Chi Rodriguez, and legendary revolutionary Che Guevera but never a Chu much less Chu Chu.

Chu Chu Ramirez is a role which must have tested Montalbán's patience.  Chu Chu works is a migrant farm worker but during the off season, he looks for work.  Chu Chu thinks the United States is the greatest place on earth.  How a Mexican farm worker in 1952 California can remain an optimist is beyond me.  Fortunately for us (unfortunately for Chu Chu), he will be severely disabused of his ideals before the film is finished.

Chu Chu finds a job clearing a plot of land belonging to ne'er-do-well farmer Ansel Ames (Wendell Corey).  Shiftless, lazy, dishonest and frequently drunk, Ames is trouble from the start.  His sexually frustrated wife (Claire Trevor in a memorable performance) sees Chu Chu without his shirt on and makes advances on him.  Ever the gentlemen, Chu Chu politely declines her amorous attention.

Ames pays Chu Chu with an overdrawn check.  Despite a court order to pay, Ames continually stalls Chu Chu on his back wages.  When Ames accidentally shoots himself, he conspires with his wife to frame Chu Chu who is eventually convicted of attempted murder and sent to prison.  His Mexican friends (including Jack Elam!) camp out on the road outside Ames house and guilt trip him into admitting his false testimony.  Chu Chu's conviction is vacated and he emerges from prison even more resolute in his belief in truth, justice and the American way.

Shelley Winters as Chu Chu's suicidal, alcoholic love interest.  In addition to trying to better himself, make some money, fend off passes from married women, defend himself against false felony accusations, Chu Chu still has time to rescue boozy bargirls!

The plot is damn silly.  It was probably ridiculous in 1952 but certainly in 2013, My Man and I is like watching theater of the absurd.  Chu Chu is not just the ideal Mexican immigrant but the ideal man who could teach Jesus Christ a thing or two.  Somehow, despite the ridiculousness of the story, Montalbán keeps the film watchable.  He is like the sun with all these terribly flawed people orbiting around him.  Corey & Trevor stand out as the dysfunctional Ames; Winters not so much in role which seems superfluous.  Robert Burton, as a sympathetic sheriff, has a strong performance.

Corey is the eponymous criminal in The Killer Is Loose.  Corey is Leon "Foggy" Poole, the inside man on a bank robbery.  After he is discovered, the police led by Det. Sam Wagner (Joseph Cotten) violate one of the cardinal rules of gun safety.  They fire their weapons through a door without knowing who is on the other side.  They assume Foggy is alone in his apartment but in fact, Mrs. Poole is there and is struck and killed by the police gunfire.  It's telling how easily and nonchalantly the police shift the blame to Foggy.  He should have surrendered when he had the chance.  Neither Wagner or the other officer involved in the shooting (Alan Hale Jr.) seem to shook up over the woman's death.  If they are not too shook up, Foggy definitely is.  Promising to kill Wagner wife (Rhonda Fleming) to avenge his wife's death, Foggy is led out of the courtroom.

Playing the model prisoner, Foggy bides his time until his opportunity arises.  Killing a guard, he escapes a work farm and heads back to LA to kill Fleming.

Corey is front and center in The Killer Is Loose as in the killer has a screw loose.  With coke bottle eyeglasses and a flat monotone speech delivery, Corey is plenty creepy as the killer.  Seemingly bullied while in the Army, he exhibits many of the characteristics we presently associate with mass murderers.

My Man and I and The Killer Is Loose were above average B films.  I enjoyed both of them.

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