Monday, February 6, 2023

Let No Man Write My Epitaph

Another of the stars honored in last year's Summer Under the Stars was Shelley Winters. One of her movies that I hadn't seen before is Let No Man Write My Epitaph, and since the movie sounded interesting, I decided to record it.

The movie was released in 1960, although there's an introductory scene set in the Chicago of 1950. Nick Romano Jr. is a nice young boy who has a lot of Damon Runyonesque friends that he meets on the street, in what is clearly a poor part of Chicago. There's the "Judge", Bruce Sullivan (Burl Ives), who sells stuff from a pop-up stall and lives in a flophouse; amputee newsstand operator Wart; former prizefighter "Goodbye" George (Bernie Hamilton); and would-be nightclub singer Flora (Ella Fitzgerald). They're all friends of Nick's mom, Nellie (that's Shelley Winters, as if you couldn't tell), who works at one of the bars.

It's Christmas, and Nellie goes and gets herself fired from the bar, so her friends try to cheer her up by bringing an impromptu party to her tenement apartment. The Judge in particular is worried about young Nick, however. He knows Nellie's past, and that Nick's father went to the electric chair for killing a cop, something that Nellie hasn't told young Nick yet. She probably subscribes to the same theory as the folks in Close to My Heart that knowing about a kid's bad ancestry dooms the kid, so she's going to do everything she can to make certain he never finds out.

Not that there's very much she can do. Fast-forward 10 years, and Nick (James Darren) is a high school senior. Mom has scrimped and saved so that Nick can have piano lessons, and Nick has become a pretty good pianist. Perhaps good enough to go to music school. Mom dreams of him becoming a concert pianist, although music teacher would probably be a more likely outcome, not that that's a bad outcome. Still, all the people at the high school seem to know about Nick's dad, and they bully him constantly and pick fights with him for it just because, even though Nick has no real desire to fight. It doesn't help that they also tease him over how Nellie earns her living, which isn't exactly reputable.

One of those late-evening fights sees Nick set upon by multiple gang members, and Goodbye George coming to Nick's defense. This gets everybody hauled off to night court, with the Judge showing up for good measure too hoping to defend him. (Whether the Judge really ever was a lawyer who got disbarred for alcoholism or something else is never fully answered.) Also showing up is Louis Ramponi (Ricardo Montalban), who decides to pay Nick's fine to keep him out of jail. This is really because he's interested in Nellie, having known the elder Nick. Nick's business card has the address of a florist's shop, but that's a front for rather less legal business.

Young Nick notices an alarming change in Mom after she starts seeing Louis, although he thinks she's just becoming an alcoholic, as bad as that may be. Everybody else begins to see it too, but things are going to get a whole lot worse when Nick finds out what's really going on.

Let No Man Write My Epitaph feels like it's the sort of movie that's trying to be a message picture while softening that hard edge through the use of the Runyonesque characters. However as I was watching it felt to me as if the screenwriter had little idea either how to write a message picture, or how to write Runyonesque characters. The characters feel mostly like caricatures, and the message gets way too heavy-handed at times. The one saving grace is that at a lot of other times, the movie feels more like an unintentional comedy. Burl Ives chews the scenery, and Shelley Winters is, well, Shelley Winters. James Darren doesn't quite have the emotional heft necessary to pull this one off.

Unfortunately, the print of Let No Man Write My Epitaph that TCM ran is another one that was panned-and-scanned down from 1.85:1 to 4:3.

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