The lucky Mr. Cyd Charisse, vocalist and entertainer Tony Martin, was a major pop singer in the forties with a number of hit records to his credit, most memorably “To Each His Own”, “There’s No Tomorrow” and “I Get Ideas”. He also appeared in a number of movies starting in the 1930’s–probably his best known credit from this distance being the Marx Brothers worst movie “The Big Store”. Martin possessed a rich baritone voice and dark good looks. But he always seemed to fall a bit into the “meatball” category–not quite taken as seriously as some of his contemporaries (Sinatra, Torme, Frankie Laine) nor able to develop a serious acting career. In addition to hit records, though, he had plenty of success in nightclubs and the general aura Martin has always given off is, I would say, a slick one–a polished “professional entertainer”. The kind of performer enjoyed by both gangsters (and their girls) and your Aunt and her friends. And of course he’s Cyd’s husband which counts for a lot…

But there might have been more for Martin in the movies had a film that he starred in–indeed it appears to have been a vehicle developed specifically for him–turned out to be a more conventional, less unusual exercise. In 1948, Martin starred in “Casbah”, a remake of Julian Duvivier’s 1937 classic “Pepe Le Moko” which had already been made into an American version the following year, titled “Algiers” and starring Charles Boyer in the role of the jewel theif stuck in the Casbah, dreaming of going home to Paris. The difference with “Casbah” is that it’s a musical version of the story. Or sort of a musical–it has some great songs by Harold Arlen and Leo Robin yet I wouldn’t call it a “score” as there simply aren’t enough of them. Indeed, the whole venture never feels quite normal primarily because the smoky and fatalistic plot and the noir atmosphere is so unusual a basis for a Hollywood musical. Nor does “Casbah” fall snugly into my muzimeller (musical melodramas) genre because the songs don’t arise from source situations–Tony Martin stops and sings when emotiion overwhelms him as is the convention in normal musicals (rather than because he’s a nightclub singer as would be the case in a proper MM). Peter Lorre, seemingly in one of his opiated phases (whenever he left Warner Brothers for another studio he immediately took on his druggier persona which makes me wonder what torturous methods Warner Brothers used to keep him clean) is quite brilliant as the inspector who can’t wait to lure Pepe outside of the Casbah and nail him. By the way, here’s the original Variety review of the movie–which references both Martin’s “socko” singing and the slightly off-kilter combination of melodrama and music…

“Casbah’s” director, John Berry,, had an eccentric (and rather longer than you might think) career–beginning in the mid-forties when John Houseman, his mentor, hired him at the tender age of twenty-six to direct “Miss Susie Slagle’s” at Paramount. After directing a mixed=bag of forties pictures–“Casbah” and John Garfield’s last film “He Ran All The Way” are probably the best of them–he left the country, a victim of the blacklist. Abroad, he had something to do with Laurel&Hardy’s mysterious last movie “Atoll K” (he’s uncredited but apparently was responsible for a good deal of the movie) and later in the fifties made the Dorothy Dandridge/Curt Jurgens interracial romance “Tamango”. (He also made a movie that I’ve never seen but with a title that I love: “Oh! Que Mambo”) In the sixties he surfaces in New York, directing theater and episodes of “East Side West Side”. Briefly in the seventies he’s back in Hollywood’s good graces–he directed the wonderful by-now cult favorite “Claudine” starring Diahann Carroll and James Earl Jones…and “The Bad News Bears Go To Japan”? How the hell did he wind up with that unenviable assignment? Things get even stranger as Berry doubles back to Paris (probably with a good deal of relief) to make a number of interesting sounding films during the late seventies and eighties, not one of which I’ve ever seen…and finally caps off his long run by making a fine film that I have seen– an adaptation of Athol Fugard’s “Boesman and Lena” starring Angela Basset and Danny Glover. More needs to be known about this unfairly neglected film. As well as this odd man and his long and singular directing career.

Below are two scenes–first is Martin wooing Marta Toren with “For Every Man”, the song that won “Casbah” it’s Oscar. (The other songs are, most notably, “What’s Good About Goodbye?” and “It Was Written In the Stars”). The second clip is a fine long take scene between Martin and Peter Lorre cat-and-mousing it. I haven’t seen “Casbah” in years. But I remember watching it as a kid on an unusual local LA station, Channel 52 which broadcast from Corona, Ca. and had the strangest collection of movies that they liscenced. Even way back then, ‘Casbah” struck me as not quite…normal. It was the oddness of the dark nature of the material (which reminded me of the noirs I already loved but didn’t know were called “noirs”–i.e. “Double Indemnity”, “The Big Sleep”, “Johnny O’Clock”) and the incongruity of Martin’s suddenly bursting into song that made the film stick out to me as something weird, haunting, not quite conventional. I wonder if this will sound odd: the film scared me in a way. I liked it and yet felt I was in dangerous hands at the same time. Certainly it wasn’t like any other old movie I’d seen. Perhaps for that reason alone it still lives in my mind all these years later…


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