Saturday, 28 January 2017

THE LAWBREAKERS (1961)



“They were grooming me to be the next Vera Miles. I was supposed to replace somebody the audience didn’t even know was missing” - Jane Fonda in The Morning After (1986).


Though she’d been both a Miss America runner-up and professional model, Vera Miles was more than just another glamour girl with big aspirations when she pulled into Tinseltown. Yes, she was a looker but also a natural actress with her own ideas on things and it took time for Hollywood to find a place at the table-read for her. However, the intelligence and emotional honesty she showed on the screen eventually brought her the roles she deserved, like that of the warmly earnest and practical heroine of Jacques Tourneur’s stylish Wichita (1955).

Among her admirers was Alfred Hitchcock who was so taken with Miles’ performance in an episode of the much-watched Alfred Hitchcock Presents television series that he put her under permanent contract. He then starred her with Henry Fonda in The Wrong Man (1957) in which she perhaps gave her most affecting performance. Unfortunately, Miles would never be used that searchingly again.

Hitchcock had seen Miles as one more in the line of blonde, ethereal successors to his indefectible ideal, Grace Kelly. Although it hadn’t been an ambition of Miles to fulfill that role, there was no denying she could conjure Kelly’s cool and composed allure with ease.   


Hitchcock followed on by casting Miles in the coveted lead role in Vertigo (1958). Unfortunately for the director, and arguably for the actress, the part went to Kim Novak after Miles told an angry and aggrieved Hitchcock that she was pregnant. The rest is history – at least as far as the film is concerned. Sight and Sound magazine in April 2016 acclaimed Vertigo to be “The Best Film in History”.

As it turned out, Vera Miles never was to become the biggest of stars; however, she did have a career overall that belied the notion she’d not lived up to her potential as an actress. She was achingly memorable in The Searchers (1956) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), and gave enduring performances in movies with directors as diverse in temperament and style as Don Siegel, Henry Hathaway, and Robert Aldrich. Miles was well suited to anchor films in which she was required to be as strong as or stronger than the males around her – alpha leads like Van Johnson (23 Paces to Baker Street, 1956) and James Stewart (The FBI Story, 1959). She was fearless in Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), though the director could hardly have rendered her more drab.


Then a year later came The Lawbreakers (1961), a riveting post-noir which featured a powerhouse all-male cast that included the irascible Jack Warden. Miles stars as Angela Walsh, who serves as both secretary and companion to Allen Bardeman (Robert Douglas) a crooked lawyer and collections broker for ‘the Organization’. The syndicate’s payoff scheme is complicated, involving a network of operators and go-betweens, each unknown to the others. If there’s a breakdown, there’ll be no question as to who’s responsible. But when Bardeman gets in over his head by throwing too much money around and paying too little tax, Angela convinces him there’s a way to hijack the mob’s weekly take and not be fingered for it. It’s a high-risk proposition but Bardeman is desperate and Angela is just as ruthless.

Meanwhile, Detective Matt Gower, played by Warden, is working hard to break the gang but with only reluctant support from local civic leaders and police officials. Then, when innocents are killed during the heist, Gower’s boss gets shown the door and Gower is promoted to Acting Police Commissioner. Little by little, he begins to piece together a picture of what’s going on. 


But by this time, Bardeman and his ex-cronies are at each others throats. Angela, realizing that the wheels are to about to fall off, decides it’s time to pull the trigger on the rest of her plan – the part Bardeman knows nothing about.

To say more would be giving too much away. Much of the pleasure to be had from this fast-knotted thriller is in just trying to hang on – which isn’t that easy, even though it clocks in at a brisk 76 minutes. Few film noirs have ever had so much of a story to tell and so little time in which to get it right. Out of necessity, Joseph M. Newman gives The Lawbreakers a straightforward and assertive direction – just as he'd done with Abandoned (1949); 711 Ocean Drive (1950); Lucky Nick Cain (1951); Dangerous Crossing (1953); Flight to Hong Kong (1956); and Death in Small Doses (1957).

Also in on the film were two of Hollywood’s most prolific and proficient screenwriters, W. R. Burnett and Paul Monash. Burnett, author of over fifty novels and screenplays, provided the original story, which he and Monash then fashioned into a teleplay titled The Lady and the Lawyer, intended as one of thirteen episodes for a TV crime series, The Asphalt Jungle (Burnett, of course, had written the best-selling novel and also contributed the screenplay for the iconic 1950 film version).


Unfortunately, during its run in early 1961, the TV series garnered only so-so ratings. Anticipating that the network would dump the show, the producing studio, MGM, decided to extend the Lady and the Lawyer episode to feature length (at least by B standards) by filming an additional 30-plus minutes with the same cast and crew. These included favored character actors Arch Johnson, Ken Lynch, Robert Bailey, James Seay, David White and Jay Adler at his sleaziest. Behind the camera was cinematographer Nickolas Musuraca, one of classic film noir’s genuine visual virtuosos, responsible for shooting classics such as The Spiral Staircase (1945), Deadline at Dawn (1946), The Locket (1946), Out of the Past (1947), Where Danger Lives (1950), Roadblock (1951), Clash by Night (1952), The Blue Gardenia (1953), and Split Second (1953).

That any start-up television project could have marshalled such an extraordinary line-up of talent (including award-winning composer/arranger Johnny Mandel along with Duke Ellington and his orchestra) says a lot about the creative acumen of series producer Jaime Del Valle, who’d earlier led out on The Lineup, both the original television series and the chilling 1958 film release directed by Don Siegel. Unfortunately, Del Valle largely disappeared from sight afterwards, as did The Lawbreakers. It ended up receiving only limited release in Europe, being deemed too risqué and uncomfortably violent to bother with distribution at home. The movie then went unseen for over four decades until TCM dusted it off some years ago to expose a minor B-noir gem that shines from nearly every angle, especially that of the performance of Vera Miles. Though her character, Angela Walsh, doesn’t get that much screen time, her impact is equally outright and climactic.


Following The Lawbreakers, Miles was cast as a vengeful alcoholic wife in Back Street (1961) starring Susan Hayward and John Gavin. Though praised for her showing, the role was a thankless one and a turning point for the actress, who decided it was time to look out for herself. She featured in a string of lighter-hearted Disney films from the mid-1960’s into the 1970’s, as well as a frequently guest-starring in popular television series, such as I Spy and Owen Marshall. She continued to work in TV and film throughout the 1980’s and early ‘90’s, including a return to the Lila Crane role in Psycho II (1983), an unexpectedly well-developed sequel to the original classic.

Miles retired from acting following completion of the psychological suspense thriller, Separate Lives (1995). But in 2012, the story behind the making of the original Psycho was brought to public attention in Hitchcock, a biopic starring Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren and featuring actress Jessica Biel in the Lila Crane part. Miles declined an invitation to be involved in the film, which foundered both critically and at the box office – proving her again to be maybe the smartest person in the room, on or off the set.

And as for Vertigo, the movie actually did poorly when first released and subsequently received little exposure or critical attention for nearly thirty years. Even had Miles starred, it’s doubtful that the film would have impacted her career in any material way during the years which professionally mattered the most. Vera Miles lives in Los Angeles.

Gary Deane

(A version of this article appeared in the Fall 2016 edition of Noir City magazine) 


Wednesday, 14 December 2016

ASSIGNED TO DANGER (1948)





“I hate macho, even though that’s what I was all my life.”  Budd Boetticher

For ten years and about as many movies, he was known professionally as Oscar Boetticher, former all-star college athlete, professional matador, and junior film director. Then came Bullfighter and the Lady (1951), which earned him full recognition as a director, along with an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Story. He also was credited for the first time as ‘Budd Boetticher’, the name under which he'd win box office success for a cycle of virile and critically enduring B westerns starring Randolph Scott. Best among them were Seven Men from Now (1956), The Tall T (1956), Ride Lonesome (1959), and Comanche Station (1960).







However, Boetticher seemed to come to movie-making nearly fully-formed. Much of what was apparent in the celebrated westerns also was in evidence in earlier efforts: the deceptively straightforward visual style; the economical but elegant storytelling; the stoical, self-contained heroes; the bleak appreciation of the cruelties of life and death.

Also among the earlier entries were several vivid crime dramas and film noirs beginning with The Missing Juror (1944), a tense thriller about a reporter on the trail of an avenging killer. Then came Escape in the Fog (1945), Assigned to Danger (1948), and Behind Locked Doors (1948), followed later by The Killer is Loose (1956) and The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond (1960), a luminous but brutal title about a real-life psychotic Chicago mobster (played by Ray Danton) who reigned during one of gangland's bloodiest eras. The last two especially are often and unjustly left out of consideration of Boetticher's best work.




Of the others, the one least known or seen is Assigned to Danger, a chilling little programmer starring Gene Raymond and Noreen Nash. Raymond plays Dan Sullivan, a Los Angeles insurance investigator who’s ‘assigned to danger’ when his company asks him to try and recover $80,000 stolen in a gang heist. The robbers also killed a watchman and sent out one of their own to be shot down by police while the rest escaped. 

The dead gang member is ID'd as Nip Powers, whose sister, Bonnie owns a lodge in the San Gabriel mountains, just beyond the city. Sullivan goes and books in for a couple of nights and begins to feel Bonnie out for any connection with the gang. However, he overplays his hand and Bonnie brushes him aside, saying, “Don’t start making wolf noises, I’m not that lonely”. She later apologizes, telling him, “I’ve never been lucky with men.” But when he presses her further, she says, “There’s nothing worth telling about me”.




Meantime, the gang led by Frankie Mantell (Robert Bice) shows up at the lodge. Frankie had been shot during the robbery and is not happy about Sullivan's presence - though Bonnie tries to assure him that Sullivan’s just “a nice guy, the only guy that’s treated me like I were nice, too.” Not at all convinced, Frankie orders one of the gang to kill him but backs off when Bonnie informs him that Sullivan is a doctor (she's found business cards Sullivan had been given by a physician in town whom he’d asked about the lodge). Sullivan, now with his back to the wall, confesses to Bonnie that he’s not who she thinks he is. She responds in kind and tells him that she’s actually more than just a friend of Frankie’s. She and the investigator now are handcuffed one-to-the-other by their evasions and lies. 

Gene Raymond, whose talents were only variably provided for by Hollywood, delivers a solid showing in Assigned to Danger. Golden-blond and dashingly handsome in his youth, Raymond was a capable leading man, later starring in the noir psychodrama The Locket (1946) and Hubert Cornfield’s harrowing, unforgettable Plunder Road (1956). In all, Raymond’s career spanned four decades as both actor and vocal artist, introducing a number of songs on screen which became hit standards such as ‘All I Do is Dream of You’, and 'Let’s Have Another Cigarette’[i] In Assigned to Danger, he likes a pipe, which he draws on pensively as he makes an effort to engage with Bonnie. Though a seasoned investigator and nobody’s fool, his interest in her has become as much personal as professional.




But with Frankie threatening, Sullivan moves to takes control, a sympathetic Boetticher tough guy who survives only by bluffing it out until the final showdown with a clutch of voluble villains. Here they're played by Bice, Martin Kosleck, Ralf Harolde and Jack Overman, character actors well-familiar to film noir lovers. Also supporting is Gene Evans (Armored Car Robbery, 1950; Crashout, 1955), as Joey, a mute, hulking handyman who’s as watchful of Bonnie as he is worryingly hostile to Sullivan.

Noreen Nash as Bonnie, began her career as a showgirl and then played a number of mostly decorative roles in films in the late 40’s and into the 50’s. Nash, who was unquestionably beautiful, transcends expectations with an easy authority (in a 2011 interview, she spoke of Assigned to Danger as the favorite of her films which included The Southerner, 1945 and Giant, 1956). Also in her favor was the convincing-enough script by Eugene Ling, the film’s producer, who later contributed screenplays for Behind Locked Doors, Port of New York (1949), Between Midnight and Dawn (1950), and Scandal Sheet (1952). The women in Boetticher’s films sometimes come across as little more than prizes to be fought over, even when they feature prominently in the story. But Bonnie's resilience and desire to do better move Sullivan to more than just action.




Though a low-budget B production that holds to just a handful of sets and locations and clocks in at only 76 minutes, Assigned to Danger doesn't want for much, thanks to Boetticher's craftsmanship and his instincts for significance and emotional truth. With plot, action and character precisely balanced out and pared down to iconic essentials, it's a B noir well-worth watching.




[i] Off screen, Raymond served a pilot in the Air Force Reserve, flying bomber missions in both WWII and Viet Nam for which he was awarded the Legion of Merit. He also active on the boards of the Screen Actors Guild and Academy of Television Arts and Science and received two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his contributions.




Gary Deane


Sunday, 11 September 2016

RURAL NOIR: TAKING REFUGE




Ree: You always have scared me.
Teardrop: That's ‘cause you're smart.

from WINTER'S BONE (2010)



Film noir's fabled associations have been closest with the urban metropolis and its 'eight million stories' of street-wise gangsters, slippery conmen, bent cops, backstabbing femmes fatales, and just plain chumps.  

Well, as much as the song remains the same, some things have changed.

Since North American cities of all shapes and sizes began their headlong rush to be counted as precincts of gentrified vibrancy and urgent creative wonderfulness, much of both film and literary noir has packed its bags and headed off to the rural heartland where responses to matters at hand are not always as ‘nuanced’ or ‘mindful’ as a lot of city folks might like. 

Welcome to the land of Rural Noir AKA Country Noir, a world which feels like it’s about to explode in violence and usually does, leaving kith and kin to settle scores and make things right amid a conspiracy of silence. Do what you need to but don’t bother calling the law if you want to live past tomorrow.  
  
If this evokes a certain amount of dread, it's meant to, as rural noir works to defuse the myth of the bucolic countryside and expose a hard place of rusty edges and disposable existences. More recent country noir is populated with damaged men and wounded women who at one time might have been farmers or have found jobs in mills or factories. But the family farm has given way to factory farming and mills and factories are shuttered, with the work gone elsewhere. What’s left is economic insecurity, fraying community bonds, anarchic family structures and the fearful aftershocks of crime.

Rural noir’s stories are often seeded in horrific criminal happenings, though at their core, they are as much about self and family identity and how people can lose their way and go wrong even while trying to do the right thing.  But drug addiction, family grievances, and domestic violence leave wounds that won’t heal, and struggles against poverty and fate end in despair and a life sentence of grief. Though ills may be vanquished, a stinging sense of betrayal and distrust lingers.

Gritty crime tales with backwoods settings are part of the traditional and lasting material of noir fiction and film noir. One of earliest and still-best examples of rural noir was James Ross’ They Don’t Dance Much, published in 1940 which put a country spin on James M. Cain. Later, several of Jim Thompson’s fearsome tales, such as The Killer Inside Me (1952) and Pop. 1280 (1964), with their portrayals of depraved small-town lawmen, would find their way to the screen.   

Opening the door wide for contemporary rural noir was Daniel Woodrell, whose 2006 novel Winter’s Bone, released as a film in 2010, defined both a style and sensibility now most associated with modern country noir. Woodrell’s stories of criminals trapped by their violent compulsions developed out of necessity are intimate and poetic and carry genuine emotional weight. Despite the social and economic malaise clawing at the viscera of rural America, these works hold closely to the local and the personal.

Similar can be said of the twenty-five films below. Tense, atmospheric and unsettling, these are sinister, slow-burning movies that possess a stark elegance, often even at their most violent. While the themes of government corruption, political opportunism, and corporate malfeasance could have been herded like elephants into the room, thankfully they weren't. Much of these films’ dark attraction resides in their austere, contained narratives which focus on individual or private transgressions, the sins of which lie at the very heart of noir.

That said, the most recent of the titles here, Hell or High Water (2016), a movie self-consciously attuned to today’s outsider politics, swaps out film noir's signature moral ambiguity for a dubious moral equivalency (the picture’s tagline is “Justice is not a crime”). Otherwise, the movie is not to be missed. 

However, it would be a very good thing if rural noir doesn't become fitted up too obligingly with ‘Big X’, ‘Big Y’ or ‘Big Z’ as the standard operating forces of villainy. Such overt doctrinal sausage-stuffing already weighs heavily on too many box office thrillers of late. Meantime, there are plenty more of these closer-to-the-bone rural noir meditations of the last decade still to be enjoyed.

Note: The Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men (2007) is not among the films listed below, only because it’s “a film that needs no introduction”.
  

1. SHOTGUN STORIES (2007)

OFFICIAL TRAILER
REVIEW: THE CHICAGO READER

2. FROZEN RIVER

OFFICIAL TRAILER
REVIEW: TIME OUT

3. DON MCKAY (2009)

OFFICIAL TRAILER
REVIEW: ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY

4. WINTER'S BONE (2010)

OFFICIAL TRAILER
REVIEW: TIME OUT

5.THE KILLER INSIDE ME (2010)

OFFICIAL TRAILER
REVIEW: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD

6. RED, WHITE AND BLUE (2010)

OFFICIAL TRAILER
REVIEW:NEW YORK TIMES
WARNING: EXTREME VIOLENCE 


7. SMALL TOWN MURDER SONGS (2010)

OFFICAL TRAILER
REVIEW: THE VILLAGE VOICE

8.KILLER JOE (2011)

OFFICIAL TRAILER
REVIEW: THE VILLAGE VOICE

9. DEADFALL (2011)

OFFICIAL TRAILER
REVIEW: ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH

10. THIN ICE (2011)

OFFICIAL TRAILER
REVIEW: ROGEREBERT.COM


11. AIN'T THEM BODIES SAINTS (2013)

OFFICIAL TRAILER
REVIEW: STREAMONDEMAND

12. OUT OF THE FURNACE (2013)

OFFICIAL TRAILER
REVIEW: NEWSDAY

13. BAD TURN WORSE (2013)

OFFICIAL TRAILER
REVIEW: NEW YORK TIMES

14.BLUE RUIN (2013)

OFFICIAL TRAILER
REVIEW: WASHINGTON POST

15. A SINGLE SHOT (2013)

OFFICIAL TRAILER
REVIEW: THE VILLAGE VOICE

16. JOE (2013)

OFFICIAL TRAILER
REVIEW: ROLLING STONE


17. NED RIFLE (2014)

OFFICIAL TRAILER
REVIEW: SAN DIEGO READER

18. CUT BANK (2014)

OFFICIAL TRAILER
REVIEW: THE VILLAGE VOICE

19. COLD IN JULY (2014)

OFFICIAL TRAILER
REVIEW: STAR TRIBUNE

20. BIG MUDDY (2014)

OFFICIAL TRAILER
REVIEW: GLOBE AND MAIL

21. UNCLE JOHN (2015)

OFFICIAL TRAILER
REVIEW: THE VILLAGE VOICE

22. LOST IN THE SUN (2015)

OFFICIAL TRAILER
REVIEW: BLU-RAY.COM

23. COP CAR (2015)

OFFICIAL TRAILER
REVIEW: TORONTO SUN

24. TWO STEP (2015)

OFFICIAL TRAILER
REVIEW: THE VILLAGE VOICE

25. HELL OR HIGH WATER (2016)

OFFICIAL TRAILER
REVIEW: NATIONAL POST


Gary Deane

Saturday, 9 July 2016

DANCING WITH CRIME (1947)



“It appears we are in for a basinful of pictures about spivs, smash-and-grab raids and West End ‘wide boys’, with a bunch of murder dramas thrown in as light relief.”  Reginald Whitley, the Daily Mirror


In the years before WWII, the British Board of Film Censors came down hard on what it saw as the corruptive influence of 1930’s American gangster films on British crime dramas. After the war, it was a different matter. Changes in societal outlook and a more liberal Board make-up made it difficult for its policies to be applied as rigorously, despite its Chair, Andrew Harris, insisting that gangster movies were “Hollywood at its worst”.

A chorus of British film critics echoed Harris' sentiments, taken aback by the number of violent crime thrillers they were being asked to review, especially ones portraying ‘spivs’, the all-present black-marketeers and small-time hustlers occupying territory on the underworld’s tattier fringes. Though the origin of the term spiv is as obscure as the provenance of the goods they were selling, by the end of the war both the use of the word and the men it described were everywhere, including on the big screen.

To some, the spivs represented a greater threat to British society than more established villains because their illicit enterprises intersected with the everyday lives of a population deprived of basic necessities and sought-after luxuries. The spiv also held a certain rogue appeal to many Britons. In an article, ‘Meet the Spiv’, playwright Bill Naughton (Alfie), wrote, “Londoners and other city-dwellers will recognize him and so will many city magistrates – the slick, flashy and nimble-witted tough, talking sharp slang from the corner of his mouth…the counterpart to the zoot-suited hooligans of America.”



The popular allure of the spivs gave post-war British cinema an excuse to produce its own version of Hollywood gangster movies – enjoyed as much in the UK as anywhere else. The cinematic clothing – the garish ties, and striped shirts, worn with sharply-cut suits with wide lapels – did hark back to that worn by Cagney and Robinson, though Dan Duryea’s modish garb in Scarlet Street (1945) comes closer to the mark.


In the end, the post-war ‘spiv cycle’ generated many of British film noir’s most memorable titles. Among them: Waterloo Road (1944) with Johns Mills and Stewart Granger; Night Beat (1947) featuring Maxwell Reed and Anne Crawford; It Always Rains on Sunday (1947) starring Jack Warner and Googie Withers; Brighton Rock (1947) headlining Richard Attenborough, Willam Hartnell, and Carol Marsh; They Made Me a Fugitive (1947) with Trevor Howard, Griffith Jones,  Sally Gray; Noose aka The Silk Noose (1948) starring Derek Farr, Joseph Calleia, and Carole Landis; Good Time Girl (1948), featuring Dennis Price, Herbert Lom, and Jean Kent; Night in the City (1950) with Richard Widmark, Gene Tierney and Googie Withers; and Wide Boy (1952) starring Syd Tafler and Susan Shaw.

Of these, the cycle’s best-known entry would be John Boulting’s Brighton Rock, which made it clear that post-war British cinema could be as effective in expressing the conventions and concerns of what we now call film noir as the signature American releases of the period. Based on the book by Grahame Greene and with a screenplay written by Greene and playwright Terence Rattigan, the densely-plotted film primarily concerns itself with the last days and final maneuverings of an amoral young spiv, Pinkie Brown. Attenborough’s performance in Brighton Rock is decisive, bested only by his portrayal of serial killer John Christie in Richard Fleisher’s chilling 10 Rillington Place (1971). Though Brighton Rock’s fired-up director John Boulting sometimes strained too visibly with his overly-pushy compositions, the film stands as an otherwise unqualified classic of British cinema.


Preceding the release of Brighton Rock by only two months was Dancing with Crime, also starring Attenborough. Although a lesser-known spiv film, Dancing with Crime was an all-important transitional title. It was more graphic and violent than anything seen on British screens and also the first of the post-war films to deal explicitly with the kind of low-level criminality that was beginning to impact upon parts of English life as the war came to an end. Conjuring up a nocturnal half-world that reflected the anxiety and dissolution of the period, Dancing with Crime embodies the urge to escape from the chafing restraints of post-war existence by whatever means. As one Scotland Yard inspector observes dryly, “Civvy Street seems pretty strange to some of the boys”. 

   
Attenborough, 23 years old and looking much younger, plays a recently ‘demobbed’ soldier, Ted Peters, now working as a taxi driver trying to get ahead and save enough to be able to marry his childhood sweetheart, Joy, played by Sheila Sim (in real-life, Mrs. Richard Attenborough). Meantime, Peter’s boyhood friend and army buddy, Dave Robinson (Bill Owen) is only out for easy money and dealing in “this and that – everything a rich man wants and can’t get”. After pulling a jewel heist, Robinson runs afoul of gang leader, South London dance palais owner, ‘Mr. Gregory’ (Barry Jones) and his henchman and club manager, Paul Baker (Barry K. Barnes). Leaving the club one night, Robinson is shot in the back but manages to crawl into the backseat of Ted’s unattended cab. Ted and Joy later find Robinson dead and Scotland Yard is called in to investigate. However, Ted sets out on his own to find out what happened to Robinson, endangering both himself and his fiancée who takes a job at the dancehall hoping to find evidence against Gregory. 

Dancing with Crime was based on a screenplay by Brock Williams, whose list of writing credits would grow to include crime thrillers The Night Won’t Talk (1952); Three Steps in the Dark (1953); Meet Mr. Callaghan (1954), featuring Slim Callaghan, a fictional PI in the American hard-boiled style, based on books by Peter Cheney; The Gilded Cage (1950); The Pleasure Lovers (1959); Strictly Confidential (1959); and Young, Willing and Eager (1961). 

Williams’ stories and efforts at character development tend towards the schematic and the familiar. In Dancing with Crime, it comes down to two life-long friends who go down different roads, one straight and one crooked; a returning soldier unable to negotiate the demands of civilian life who turns to crime; criminals who attempt to frame the protagonist for murder; a self-styled sleuth who feels he has no choice but to act in order to clear himself and bring the real criminal to justice; a female who goes undercover in order to help ferret out the criminal. 

However, even if the film makes little effort to upset some of the standard noir tropes and conventions, Dancing with Crime has no end of things to really like about it, beginning with its cast. Though the characters may be typed, the actors bring a vivid fleshiness to each, all of whom are searchingly real in their Englishness. Baby-faced Richard Attenborough with his youthful appeal and vulnerability can be swallowed 'smooth as margarine’. Bill Owen as the stylish and voluble Robinson shines every moment of the too few that he’s on screen, as do Barry Jones as the fastidious, ruthless criminal mastermind and Barry K. Barnes as the suave floor boss easily attracted to both women and violence.


Among those women is Toni (Judy Kelly), one of the club’s ‘professional partners’, who suffers at the hands of Barnes and whose despair is practically a living presence; also, the uncredited Diana Dors as Annette, another of the floor dancers at the night club. The dark-haired Dors was only 15 years old at the time but the cool self-awareness and intelligence that would win her praise for her performance in the much-nominated Yield to the Night (1956) was already apparent. Look too for Dirk Bogarde in an unbilled, blink-and-you’ll-miss-him bit as an earnest young police constable.  


Dancing with Crime's director,John Paddy Carstairs, was a producer's friend who turned out well-crafted pictures, mostly thrillers and comedies, on time and on budget for over 30 years. Notable among his crime films, apart from Dancing with Crime, were The Saint in London (1939), Sleeping Car to Trieste (1948) and his final film, The Devil’s Agent (1962), a superior hard-edged Cold War thriller starring Peter van Eyck and Macdonald Carey. Carstairs also became well-known as a painter and he brought an imaginative eye to his trade. Dancing with Crime though made on a modest budget by a minor studio is far more ambitiously directed than many second-tier British noirs of the period – witness the unreserved brio of the elaborate boom shots in the dance palais. 

   
Capturing this blithe elegance as well as ominous night-time exteriors was the ardent camera of cinematographer Reg Wyer. Wyer was a contemporary of Otto Heller, the man responsible for lensing the now noir-enshrined They Made Me a Fugitive (1947), Robert Siodmak’s Portrait of a Sinner (1959), Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960), and the groundbreaking Victim (1961). However, the cumulation of Wyer’s efforts over the same period was at least as consequential in terms of craft. Besides Dancing with Crime, his on-screen credits included the critically-awarded The Seventh Veil (1945), The Upturned Glass (1946), Daybreak (1948), So Long at the Fair (1950), Never Look Back (1952), Eye Witness (1956), The Weapon (1956), Across the Bridge (1957), Violent Playground (1958), and The Man in the Back Seat (1961).  

Dancing with Crime, which far outperformed Brighton Rock at the box office, is enlivened further by an array of ‘forties British big band classics like the hit ‘Bow Bells’ and an atmospheric score by composer/musical arranger Ben Frankel. Frankel’s music graced over a hundred films including film noirs The Seventh Veil; Dear Murderer (1947), Mine Own Executioner (1947), Night Beat, Bond Street (1948), Sleeping Car to Trieste, Night and the City (British release), Double Confession (1950), The Clouded Yellow (1950), Footsteps in the Fog (1955), Libel (1954) and a dozen others.

But by 1950 and with the weakening of austerity measures and rationing, the sympathetic relationship between the public and the small-fry spivs was coming to an end. While Richard Widmark’s finely-attired Harry Fabian is desperately trying to find a way to “live the life of ease and plenty without working for it”, British audiences, looking ahead with greater hope, were no longer prepared to turn a blind eye to such fecklessness.


Three years later and just months after the last ration book was withdrawn, The Bells of St. Trinians, an antic comedy starring Alastair Sim and Joyce Grenfell, was released which featured an over-the-top caricature called ‘Flash’ played by George Cole. The movie was a sensation and almost overnight the spiv and his lot had become but a joke.  




Gary Deane