Zero Mostel

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Birth Name: Samuel Joel Mostel

Birth: February 28, 1915

Death: September 8, 1977

Number of Films Zero Mostel Made with Humphrey Bogart: 2

The Lowdown

Nicknamed “Zero” for his poor performance in grade school, Mostel was born in Brooklyn, NY, moved to a Connecticut farm with his family, and eventually made his way back to the big city for what should have been a smooth and successful career on stage and in film.

Beginning as a popular nightclub act, a radio star, and a budding TV actor, Mostel rose to fame for his impeccable timing, biting sense of humor, and incredible physicality. But much like the namesake for this blog, Mostel’s political beliefs became a problem for his career after testifying for the House Un-American Activities Committee. Blacklisted for much of the 50’s, Mostel would once again rise to prominence on stage, one crowd at a time, until his eventual return to the big screen for such classics as A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and The Producers.

Mostel’s work with Bogart was certainly a step out from his usual comedic performances. While not playing completely straight in either film, his characters’ physical, mental, and moral deficiencies sometimes come off as more sympathetic than comical.

I’ve never met a man or woman who wasn’t a fan of at least one of Mostel’s films, and I’d consider both of his Bogart collaborations personal favorites. So without further ado, let’s welcome Zero Mostel into the pantheon of The Usual Suspects!

The Filmography

The Enforcer – 1951

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Mostel plays “Big Babe” Lazick, a bumbling hitman that Bogart’s District Attorney Martin Ferguson has to question in order to find an elusive gangster.

Mostel is wonderful playing around with all the skills and talents that made him a great comedic actor, but here, those attributes are played straight, making him look pathetic and in over his head. From his first scene where he’s being carried out of a church by the cops, to his tension filled first meeting with the crew of hitmen who hire him, Mostel is perfect in the role of a criminal flunky who just doesn’t have the gusto to finish a job.

Mostel and Bogart get a great interrogation scene together, and it’s a shame they only share two films. Mostel’s wimpy loser next to Bogart’s confident tough guy makes a great pairing.

You can read my original post on the film here.

Sirocco – 1951

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Mostel plays Balukjiann, a local businessman who’s rounded up with Bogart’s black market gun runner when the French Army tries to locate Syrian sympathizers during a 1925 insurgency. Bogart plays it cool. Mostel jumps readily to the other side.

It’s not as memorable of a role as Mostel had in The Enforcer, as his character serves more of a “yes man” role next to Lee J. Cobb and Everett Sloane’s French officers, but I’m always fine with an overqualified actor playing a smaller part in a film.

No big laughs to be had from Mostel here, but he does add just a touch of comedic relief to an often dark plot – and the film is far more solid than the reviews let on. It’s worth checking out.

You can read my original post on the film here.

*The Usual Suspects is an ongoing section of the blog where I highlight some of Bogart’s more regular collaborators. You can read the rest of the write ups here.*

Sirocco – 1951

Sirocco

My Review

—Not as Casablanca-ish as You’ve Been Told—

Your Bogie Film Fix:

3.5 Bogie out of 5 Bogies!

Director: Curtis Bernhardt

The Lowdown

A black market gun dealer (Bogart) sells weapons and ammo to the Syrians as they revolt against their French occupiers in 1925, only to fall in love with the girlfriend (Märta Torén) of the French Colonel (Lee J. Cobb) in charge of French Intelligence.

What I Thought

The bar on this one had been set pretty low by everything that I’d read and everyone that I’d talked to before I watched it. I was told over and over again – this was a weak attempt at recreating the magic of Casablanca.

I got Sirocco as one of the five films from the TCM box set ‘Humphrey Bogart: The Columbia Pictures Collection.’ During the film’s introduction, Ben Mankiewicz acknowledges the criticism that the film has received for aping Casablanca, but he also points out that watching the film removed from the era helps the enjoyment of it quite a bit. I would agree 100%.

Yes, we have expatriate Bogart involved in some criminal operations in a foreign occupied country. And yeah, there is a woman involved, who also happens to be involved with a man who’s doing his best to become a martyr for his cause. But I think Sirocco does a good job of finding its own legs as it diverts away from many of the more iconic qualities that we think about when we consider Casablanca.

First and foremost, Harry Smith is a much darker criminal than Rick Blaine. Whereas Blaine ran an under-the-radar casino that was actually favored by the local law, Smith is supplying the weapons that are aiding the Syrians to actually kill the French in charge. If discovered, Smith knows he would almost certainly be shot.

Blaine lives low profile, rarely leaving the nightclub and never sticking his neck out when there’s trouble. Smith, on the other hand, is required to live in a constant state of danger as he dodges bullets, stalks darkened alleys and underground catacombs, and risks his neck every time he goes after a paycheck.

But above all, one character describes Smith as a man with, “no morals and no political convictions.” While the same accusation was essentially made against Blaine, I think much of it was an act that he was ready to drop in a heartbeat when finally faced with a life and death decision that could impact the entire war. With Smith, it’s dead on.

Beyond that, I think it could be pretty easily argued that Sirocco isn’t even a Bogart vehicle nearly as much as it is a showcase for Lee J. Cobb as he plays the French military man in charge of smoking out Bogart’s gun ring. I think we’re supposed to be rooting against the French as we cheer on Bogart. But Bogart’s portrayal is just seedy enough, and Cobb’s is just righteous enough, that it’s not hard to sympathize with the French occupier who defies his own commanding officer to bring a truce to the bloody battle.

We watch Cobb slowly melt down under the pressure of finding the gunrunners while at the same time trying to salvage his relationship with Märta Torén, who is clearly ready to end the relationship and move on to a darker and more mysterious Bogart.

After you watch the film and see what both Cobb and Bogart go through during the last act of the film, try and imagine the role of Harry Smith played by someone less legendary than Bogart. I’m pretty sure that if an unknown had been cast in the role, Sirocco would be considered Cobb’s film to make or break.

This is the second film I’ve written up by Director Curtis Bernhardt, the first being Conflict, and what I’ve really come to appreciate is the way that he often lets scenes play out not for plot advancement, but for character color. Especially check out the scenes where Bogart’s lounging in the barbershop or the nightclub when we get to watch him just exist for a few moments in the environments with his costars, as if nothing more important was happening in the rest of the world.

The Bogart Factor

He’s very good here. The script doesn’t give him quite as much nuance as Rick Blaine, but I enjoyed seeing him play a real anti-hero. If Bogart had made the decision to leave the girl behind, or shoot his way out of being arrested, it would have been believable. Director Bernhardt does of great job of setting up Harry Smith as a man who is just in it all for the money. Once he’s got enough, he’ll probably disappear, moving on to the next conflict where he can make a quick buck at the expense of a lot of dead soldiers.

I like dark Bogie a lot. This character is probably more on par with someone like Roy Earle – a likable criminal who you almost want to root for, even though he’s a part of some pretty awful behavior. Check out the scene where he takes the cigarette back from Torén and smokes it despite the fresh blood that’s on the end of it.

The Cast

Lee J. Cobb plays French Intelligence officer Colonel Feroud. Cobb does a really nice job here of painting a man that’s incredibly noble, and yet incredibly flawed at the same time. He’s the only man in Damascus who seems to want the fighting to end without any more bloodshed, but at the same time, he loses his temper and attacks the woman he loves. I want to watch it again just to spend a little more time focusing on his performance rather than Bogart’s.

Everett Sloane does wonderfully as the over-taxed, and sometimes iron willed, French officer Gen LaSalle, and it’s his pressure on Cobb’s subordinate officer that gives the final act its true stakes.

Märta Torén plays Cobb’s girlfriend, Violette. Again, like so many of the other characters in this film, Violette is not an easy person to love, and we never fully know if she’s actually interested in Bogart, or if she just wants to use him for an exit from the country. It’s a completely contrary role to Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa, and Torén holds her own very well against Bogart and Cobb.

Nick Dennis nearly steals the film as Bogart’s sidekick and gunrunning partner, Nasir. I really enjoyed Dennis here, and I want to see a lot more of him. I defy you to pick any scene that he’s in and not smile at least once.

Zero Mostel plays one of the other black marketeers that’s in league with Bogart and Dennis. It’s not a huge role, but I was surprised to see him again in another Bogart film after The Enforcer. I’ve always enjoyed Mostel a great deal, and he’s a perfect fit for this nervous nelly role.

Classic Bogie Moment

So . . . your favorite nightclub just got blown up with you inside? The room is filled with smoke, blood, and the screams of women? Might as well have a smoke and a drink, right? Check out Bogart and Nick Dennis keeping it cool here:

Bogie Classic Sirocco The Bottom Line

This one’s well worth a watch. Some of the posters even use the tagline, “Beyond Casablanca,” and I think it could make a great double feature with the cinema classic.

The Enforcer – 1951

Enforcer

My Review

—A Decent Thriller—

Your Bogie Fix:

3.5 Bogie out of 5 Bogies!

Director:  Although Bretaigne Windust is credited, Raoul Walsh was brought in after only a few days of filming when Windust was taken to the hospital, seriously ill.  Windust would not return in time to finish the picture.

The Lowdown

Well, I think I’m finally ready to start writing a book entitled Where Have All the Character Actors Gone?  While the old school studio system with its contract players might not work in today’s world, it sure did produce a heck of a lot of solid men and women who could play side roles so well that an entire movie could be elevated.

Bogart is Assistant District Attorney Martin Ferguson, a man in desperate need of sleep when the movie opens, and even more desperate need when it wraps up.  (What are the odds that I’d randomly pull two movies in a row where Bogart’s a desperate District Attorney?  How many can there be?)

ADA Ferguson is one night away from going to trial with Albert Mendoza (Everett Sloane), a man that he believes to be the mastermind behind a criminal ring of hitmen, and the police have just brought in the one and only witness that can make the case stick.

Ted De Corsia plays Joseph Rico, Mendoza’s second in command, and he’s the last chance that ADA Ferguson has left to put Mendoza in prison.  Rico has other ideas though, as he knows that there is nowhere he can run to escape Mendoza’s grasp.  Rather than rat out his boss and pay the consequences, Rico makes a break from a third story window, and then makes a lot of breaks as he hits the ground after losing his balance on a ledge.

Ferguson and his right hand man, Captain Frank Nelson (Roy Roberts), are suddenly faced with a ticking clock.  Ferguson has to be in court within eight hours, and his main piece of evidence against Mendoza is no longer breathing.  But wasn’t there something he missed?  Some small piece of evidence that’s lurking in the dark recesses of his mind?  Something that he didn’t think he’d need to remember?

Ferguson and Nelson reopen the case from the beginning, and we the viewers get to flashback to the first moments that Mendoza’s men slip up, and the crime syndicate flashes onto ADA Ferguson’s radar.

Imagine an extra-long episode of Law and Order, except the cast is made up of classic Hollywood actors.  It’s a murder mystery who-done-it in which we get to watch Bogart track down one lead after another, only to find out that every new witness he needs has just turned up dead.

There’s also a nifty twist at the end that I’ll admit, I should have seen coming.  But twist endings weren’t as common in classic Hollywood, so I wasn’t expecting it!  It’s not my fault, see!  The clues were there but I wasn’t paying close enough attention!  I’ll wager that even if you do see it coming, it’ll still be pretty satisfying – I’ll say no more just in case you haven’t seen it yet!

Oh!  And Zero Mostel plays “Big Babe” Lazick, one of the hit men that Bogart has to flip for the prosecution!  So we get some great work between the two actors as Ferguson leans his full force onto Lazick’s hefty shoulders, using every bit of threat and intimidation that he can muster into getting the poor dope to turn over Mendoza – even coldheartedly using Lazick’s wife and child.

And just to show you how cliché it’s become in the modern day to have hitmen as a part of our cultural entertainment, there’s a number of scenes in the movie that actually take the time to explain what the words “contract” and “hit” mean.  Some of that lingo is so commonplace now that I wouldn’t be surprised if my six year old knew it.  Can you even imagine being unaware of how a hitman works in this day and age?

The Great

This cast is so much fun.  Zero Mostel and Ted de Corsia are standouts for sure, but even the smallest parts – King Donovan as Sgt. Whitlow – are so well cast that every actor on screen is fighting for your attention with even the smallest line.  Jack Lambert as the crazy killer, “Philadelphia” Tom Zaca, and Tito Vuolo as Tony Vetto, help round out the killing crew – both scene stealers in their own right.

Everett Sloane’s portrayal of the hit man gang’s ringleader Albert Mendoza is expertly down played until the final act of the film, and when he finally appears in a scene with de Corsia, it’s chilling and wonderful.

Bogart gets a “great” mention as well.  A perfect double feature would be to pair this film with Marked Woman.  In Marked Woman, Bogart’s the young, idealistic ADA who’s fighting for justice through a web of rules and regulations.  In The Enforcer, we see a Bogart who’s aged and weary, just as ready to lob a right hook at a suspect as he is an interrogation question.  Ferguson is a weary soul, and Bogart gives the character his just due.

The Good

While there’s nothing groundbreaking with this script by Martin Rackin, it is a very solid mystery / thriller.  Once the flashback starts, the viewer is pulled through multiple twists and turns along the case with Bogart until the big reveal at the end.  There’s no romance thrown in to pander to the date crowd, and Bogart gets to play Ferguson as a flawed and frustrated man who isn’t afraid to bend the rules a bit to get the job done.   A remake of this today, if done well, would be a solid summer popcorn flick.

Classic Bogie Moment

The cops lead Rico into the station to meet ADA Ferguson.  The office door opens and inside the darkened room is Bogart, sitting behind his desk, hunched over and smoking a cigarette.  He doesn’t have to say a word for us to know his state of mind.  He’s tired and edgy.  Did he sleep last night?  Probably not.  Will he sleep this night?  More than likely he won’t, and he knows it.

Someone should put together a montage of all the “Bogie smoking behind a desk” moments from cinema history.

The Bottom Line:

This is an very satisfying police procedural.  Not as dark and noir-ish as Bogart’s private detective roles, but a fun look at a more by-the-book type of lawman from Bogart.  (Even though he’s not all that by-the-book at times!)  Very rewatchable, especially the second time when you get to reexamine the scenes that hint towards the twist.

Fun Fact:

Just for fun, sometimes I like to go through the full cast and crew to see what the overlap between Bogart movies might be.  So go to IMDB’s page and then scroll down through the cast until you get to a guy by the name of David McMahon, who happens to play a police officer in this movie, although he was “uncredited.”  Now click through to his filmography and see a long list of “uncredited” roles that McMahon played throughout his career.  Bartenders, cops, deliveyrmen, Taxi Drivers – if there was a small role or background character to be played, this guy played it – and more than likely he was “uncredited” at the time.

This was an era in Hollywood when you could be a contracted working actor with a career made up of dozens and dozens of movies and TV shows, and yet you might still be completely unrecognizable to the public at large.  It wasn’t until the end of McMahon’s career, when began to appear as a regular on a few TV series, that he might have finally gained some notoriety.

How many times do you think this guy heard, “Hey!  Don’t I know you from somewhere?” only to run through his long list of bit parts until the befuddled fan finally came up with, “The Virginian!  Yeah!  Yeah!  That’s right!  You’re the conductor on The Virginian!”

David McMahon!  We salute you!  It was actors like you who brought years of experience to small roles in order to elevate a movie’s credibility!