Question: What two great movies start with our hero working at a small town filling station and being recognized by an evil person out of his past?
One of them was on the other night, “The Killers.” It is very loosely based on my favorite Hemingway short story of the same name.
It is a short short story, and it took a lot of imagination to stretch it into a full length movie. But it works. It’s a dark movie – what they call film noir. It’s Burt Lancaster’s first movie and Ava Gardner’s first big movie.
Old Burt is just working away at the filling station – they probably sell Acme gas. Nobody knows much about him, but he’s not bothering anybody. Just changing tires and wiping windshields and checking the air in tires and checking the oil (they used to do that, you know).
Anyway, this big Cadillac comes in. Burt, you can tell, recognizes the driver, and the driver recognizes him. That does it. Burt knows somebody will be coming after him for a double or triple or some kind of cross many years ago. And that’s about it.
One thing that made me feel kind of bad is that William Conrad was one of the killers. I mean, whachoo talking about. He’d kill you or anybody as easily as you’d kill a roach, just part of his job. But I reckon he straightened out later: he was the voice of Matt Dillon, on the radio version of Gunsmoke.
The other great movie that starts like that is “Out of the Past.”
Robert Mitchum is our hero here, just running a little filling station in a small town, trying to stay as unobtrusive as possible, when along comes this guy he was associated with a long time ago. He gets pulled back into his past and gets tied up again with some unsavory characters, mainly Kirk Douglas. It’s a must-see.
Oh, speaking of being disillusioned, about the voice of Matt Dillon being so mean, there is another case like that in “The Big Sleep.” Remember the man in brown? Evil. He made a little guy drink some poison. Just said, “Here, drink it down.” The little guy did and promptly expired.
The bad guy was none other than Bob Steele. The very same cowboy I saw at the picture show many, many times as one of the Three Mesquiteers. Bob Steele. Our hired hand, as we were chopping cotton, said, “Um, Um. That little devil can fight. He could whip Roy Roger and Gene Autry…, um, um.”
Being the movie buff and critic that I am, I can easily remember my introduction to picture shows. We didn’t get a picture show in my home town ‘til I was nine, but I had seen one at the Ensley Theater when Mother and brother Jack (about two years old) and I went to visit my three aunts in Birmingham. Cousins Betty Jane and Joe and I saw some movie; wish I could remember what it was.
So, when they bussed all of us third-graders to our neighboring/rival town ten miles to the north to see The Wizard of Oz, I was quite blase about the whole thing.
I was a veteran. I wasn’t like Sarah Kate, who ran and got in Miss Hamil’s lap when the trees by the yellow brick road started clutching after Judy Garland.
Shortly after that, our own Lamar Theater came into being. The schedule soon settled into this: top-ranked movie on Sunday afternoon and Monday night, probably a 20th Century Fox musical or a highly recommended drama.
No movie Tuesday. Wednesday night was the drawing night. Mediocre to great movie. Didn’t matter much. The drawing would be for ten dollars the first Wednesday. If the drawee wasn’t there, the prize would go up ten dollars, and so on. By the time the pot got to be around a hundred, the theater would be packed.
No movie Thursday.
Then Friday night, Saturday afternoon and Saturday night, the Western would be shown, along with (all the movies) a newsreel, a comedy, maybe a “selected short subject,” and the previews (what the TV people call trailers). They weren’t trailers – they came before the main feature.
And, on Fridays and Saturdays, there was the serial. I believe, sifting back through many eons, that the first (ever) serial was Dick Tracy. Also, a Red Ryder serial with Don “Red” Barry came along.
I always hoped to see every installment of a 12-chapter serial but never did.
After the Saturday night Western came the “midnight” show. It started about 9:45 p.m. Sometimes, the Dead End Kids or the East Side Kids, or Laurel and Hardy. But most times, it was a chiller: the Mummy, Frankenstein, Dracula, the Wolf Man, and the various kinfolks and combinations of those frightful things.
They made walking that two miles home up a narrow dirt road a deliciously dreadful experience.
Bob Sanders is a veteran local radio personality, columnist, author and raconteur of note.