At long last! I have been looking for I Was an American Spy for over ten years and have had countless people contact me in hot pursuit as well. This 1951 drama starring Ann Dvorak as the real life Claire Phillips, who worked as a nightclub singer while spying on the Japanese and is eventually captured, was Ann’s favorite role.
Warner Bros now has what they call “The Warner Archive Collection” and I Was an American Spy is one of many great titles offered for $19.95. The print was supposedly restored recently, and should look great. My copy is ordered and on its way. I will give a full report once the grand premiere has taken place in my living room.
The Long Night is going to air on Turner Classic Movies on Friday, March 20th at 8:00pm EST
By the late 1940s, Ann Dvorak had pretty much been relegated to supporting roles. While she generally no longer had the name above the title, these later films gave her the opportunity to play some colorful characters which resulted in memorable performances. In the Long Night she plays an assistant to the domineering magician Maximilian (Vincent Price). She has a soft spot for blue collar Joe (Henry Fonda) whose romance with a fragile girl (Barbara Bel Geddes) causes him to cross the temperamental magician.
Her character, Charlene, is hardened but sympathetic and Ann more than holds her own while sharing the screen with Price and Fonda. She was a naturally talented actress, but always benefited from working with strong directors (Howard Hawks, Mervyn LeRoy, George Cukor) and Anatole Litvak is no exception.
The Long Night is a gritty, but stylish noir thriller, and even though Ann Dvorak does not have a lot of screen time, it’s still worth watching.
If there is one thing Ann Dvorak was especially great at, it was dying on screen. Fortunately for us film fans, she had the opportunity to do this on a few occasions. Just a warning that spoilers are ahead as we take a look at divine Dvorak death scenes.
I would imagine few people realize that Ann was only twenty when Scarface was filmed, and that this was her first real acting gig (she mainly just smiled big and hoofed around a bunch of MGM musicals prior to this). While her role as Paul Muni’s kid sister, Cesca Camonte, did not give her a lot of screen-time, it was still an important character in a big movie, with a really dramatic death scene.
The end comes for Cesca as she heroically (or stupidly, or creepily) stands by her big brother as he stands-off against the Chicago police and quickly loses his mind. As the cops riddle Tony’s apartment with a sea of bullets, he is unable to draw the bulletproof window treatments fast enough and Cesca is stricken while loading a gun. Tony’s cowardice emerges, as he seems more concerned with being left alone than with comforting his dying sister. The realization that her big brother is not what she thought he was fills her last moments with fear and disgust.
Cesca’s death could have easily come off as pure camp, but Dvorak’s execution of the scene is impressive. A touch of the melodramatic does slip in when she looks up to the ceiling and calls out the name of her dead husband (Tony’s best friend Guino, who he had killed hours before). I have viewed Scarface a number of times on the big screen, and every time she cries out “Guino! Guino!,” I always brace myself for the audience to start snickering. They never do, which makes me think that at times Ann was a better actress then even I give her credit for.
I am particularly partial to Ann’s untimely death in Three on a Match. This film was the first time I ever encountered Ann Dvorak who quickly mesmerized me with her portrayal of Vivian Revere, a bored-society-wife-turned-cokehead. She meets her ultimate doom by unceremoniously throwing herself out a window to save the life of her son who had been kidnapped by her loser boyfriend in an attempt to collect a ransom from the boy’s father. (Were you able to follow that?)
What’s so striking about this scene are the moments leading up to the big plunge. No attempt is made to make her look like anything more than the worn out drug-addict she has become. She frenziedly attempts to open up windows that have been nailed shut, tries to calmly engage her son in a game of hide and seek so he’ll be safe, and finally scribbles a message on her dirty nightgown in lipstick while frantically praying. The first time I saw this, I was not quick enough to catch onto what she was doing and was shocked when she screams and jumps out of the widow the moment the gangsters enter her room. Her final scene in Three on a Match is disturbing, yet memorable and I became a fan for life.
Ann may not have the main female lead in ‘G’ Men (that honor goes to Margaret Lindsay), but she definitely has the more interesting role. As Jean Morgan, a showgirl whose unrequited love for ‘G’ Man James Cagney leads her to run with the wrong crowd, Dvorak gets to perform a lively musical number and die in Cagney’s arms.
Ann dooms herself to death in this one when she turns coat on her hoodlum hubby (Barton MacClane) in order to assist Cagney on the right side of the law. MacClane has no problem coldly and callously gunning down his wife in a phone booth, which comes as a shock for first time viewers (it did for me at least). Ann gets to have the drawn out death scene which, like Scarface, could be cheesy as all get out, but in Dvorak’s capable hands Jean Morgan’s demise is heartbreaking. When she responds to Cagney’s “I’ll see you later” with a tearful “I won’t be around,” I get welled up every time.
This lackluster western about a Jesse James look-alike (John Ireland) who resurrects the old James gang is one of Ann’s weakest films and she looks kind of awful in it (what’s up with those bangs?). Ann was only three years older than Ireland when this was shot, but the age difference comes off as considerably more (and not in Ann’s favor), and the two have zero chemistry.
Leave it to Ann to redeem this forgettable role with a magnificent death scene. Her character Susan (Sue) Ellen Younger, has few redeeming qualities and spends most of the movie working Ireland for her benefit. In the end, the fake Jesse James gets wise to her backstabbing ways and gives her belly full of led as she is trying to make a getaway on a horse. She slowly sinks to the ground while clinging to the animal, making for a haunting end.
Ok, Ann doesn’t actually die on-screen in this one, but the movie is pretty much un-watchable once she bites it. I think it’s fair to say that the impact her character’s death makes on the entire film warrants inclusion on this list.
As Mary Ashlon, a washed up fashion model at the end of the line, Ann gives an Oscar worthy performance. She is bitter, pissed off, drunk, desperate, and depressed which means she is a fascinatingly fabulous character. Lana Turner actually pales next to Ann in this scene stealing performance that culminates with a soused-up Dvorak tirade about the cruelty of life. The next scene reveals that Ann had subsequently thrown herself out a high-rise window, leaving the viewer wishing for the rest of the film that she had survived the fall.
If Columbia had faithfully adapted this 1936 James Warwick play of the same name, it would have ended with gangster Chester Morris completely losing his mind at the hands of psychiatrist Ralph Bellamy and shooting his devoted partner- in-crime (Dvorak) before turning the gun on himself. Since the Production Code did not allow for so much nastiness, Chester is instead gunned down by the police, leaving moll Ann to cry over his fallen body and depriving the viewer of what could have been a great Dvorak death scene.
This is one of the Ann’s few straight comedy roles, and she does a respectable job as Olive Jenson, a hard drinking, kinda pathetic goofball who latches onto a weak willed George Brent while his wife (Carole Landis) is out of town. I am listing this as an honorable mention because Olive suffers from a heart condition that causes her to pass out, giving the appearance of being deceased. That’s right, she fake dies in this one (and on more than one occasion), but always gets up to have another drink and charm us, the viewer, with this off beat performance.
Just a side note: I was going to try and find these scenes on YouTube, but decided against it because: 1) The clips may disappear at some point 2) I’m kind of lazy 3) You should be watching Ann Dvorak films in their entirety!