Friday, 25 July 2014

VANISHING POINT (1970)/ GONE IN 60 SECONDS (1974)


An ex-cop/ former racing driver (Barry Newman) gets whacked-out on Benzedrine and sets out to muscle a torqued-up 1970 Dodge Charger from Denver to San Francisco in record time. County cops and state troopers soon are all over him like a cheap suit. 

However, local folks including a soul brother disc jockey (Cleavon Little), some free-livin’-and-lovin’ hippies and a cagey desert recluse (Dean Jagger) sense an anti-hero-in-the-making and help Newman evade the ‘blue meanies’ and other hostilities on the way to existential nowhere.



Further making out it’s supposed to be something more than just a car chase movie, ‘Vanishing Point’s protagonist is known only as ‘Kowalski’, a moniker akin to Kafka’s ‘Josef K’ or Camus’ ‘Meursault’ - isolated, fated individuals looking into the abyss. Walter Hill later put same in a car and called him ‘The Driver’; Nicolas Winding Refn more recently, just ‘Driver’. If you’re going to head off into the abyss, you may as well do it in a cool set of wheels.



Unfortunately 'Vanishing Point' comes apart under the weight of its self-conscious heaviosity and general raggedness. Apart from Dean Jagger not much acting happens. Director Richard Safarian often fails to point the camera in any direction that matters. The plot (which you’re not necessarily supposed to care about in an action movie) manages to get in the way of itself and the action both. But it's fair to say that the ending works and almost justifies what it took to get there. Almost. 

When first released ‘Vanishing Point’ did well at the box office, resonating with ‘70’s audiences that earlier had embraced ‘Easy Rider’ (1969) to which the film’s been compared. But thankfully that was then and this is now. 

A cult movie of similar ilk that’s stood up better is ‘Gone in 60 Seconds’ (1974), a brooding just-for-the-hell-of-it vanity project of Hollywood stunt driver H. B. Halicki which the cities of Long Beach and Torrence, California have never forgotten. 

This one is the big ‘In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida’ of '70's car chase B-pictures. While it doesn’t make a whole lotta sense, it doesn’t really matter. ‘Gone in 60 Seconds’ is half killer, half filler - the filler being the first part of the film which has a go at a plot. After that, just sit back and enjoy the ride. As Leonard Cohen might had said, "dance me to the end of noir".  






THE BLIND GODDESS (1948)



Derek Waterhouse (Michael Denison) learns from a friend (subsequently murdered) that his employer Lord Brasted (Hugh Williams) has embezzed thousands of pounds intended for post-war relief efforts. He confronts Brasted who, while denying the allegation, offers his Secretary a ‘present’ of £10,000 pounds and employment abroad.

Waterhouse refuses and Brasted, seeing Waterhouse has no proof, takes him to court in an attempt to discredit and ultimately destroy him. Brasted is urged on by his wife, Lady Brasted (Anne Crawford), who’s in fact a former lover of Waterhouse and who turns out to be something less than a lady. 
  
‘The Blind Goddess’ though based on a play by Patrick Hastings manages to avoid any obvious theatricality - thanks to a script by Sydney and Muriel Box that while wordy is not talky; also to the dexterous direction by Harold French ('The Hour of 13’ 1952, ‘The Paris Express’ 1952, Forbidden Cargo’ 1954).

The little-known Brit-noir is rich with wonderful lead and supporting performances, among them those of Eric Portman as John Dearing KC who serves as Brasted’s attorney and Claire Bloom as Dearing’s daughter, Mary. Bloom is luminous in her first film role. Anne Crawford as the treacherous opportunist Lady Brasted is also a standout. 



The full weight of this noir melodrama is felt particularly in the film’s tense courtroom scenes. However, not all is revealed there as evidence continues to be gathered and as momentum begins first to shift outside of court. The film’s narrative build-out is deft and disciplined and for that clearly does owe something to the play.     

‘The Blind Goddess’ is a splendid British film noir. At one time or other, it showed on BBC Channel Four but needs to find commercial re-issue on DVD to really get the attention it deserves.  



WITNESS IN THE DARK (1959)



The damsel in distress has been a movie mainstay since Pauline first got tied to the tracks. But during the classic film noir cycle of the ‘40’s and ‘50’s women-in- peril began to cohere as a sub-genre with films such as ‘Gaslight’ 1944, ‘Sorry, Wrong Number’ 1948 , ‘Moss Rose’ 1947 , ‘Sleep, My Love’ 1948, ‘Lady in a Cage ’ 1964. The endangered woman had become a standard noir trope much like the femme fatale.

A movie that clearly upped the ante was ‘Wait Until Dark’ (1967) directed by Terence Young and starring Audrey Hepburn’ as a woman even more vulnerable by fact of being blind. ‘Wait Until Dark’ was a huge hit and launched a succession of 'blind woman noir' titles that continues unabated, among them: ‘See No Evil’ 1971 w/ Mia Farrow, ‘Blind Fear’ 1989 w/ Shelley Hack, ‘Blind Witness 1989 w/ Victoria Principal, ‘Jennifer Eight 1992 w/ Uma Thurman, ‘Blink’ 1994 w/ Madeline Stowe, ‘Nowhere in Sight’ 2001 w/ Helen Slater, and in 2013, ‘Blindsided’ AKA ‘Penthouse North’ w/ Michelle Monaghan.

However, pre-dating all of them was a gripping little British noir ‘Witness in the Dark’ about a young woman - blind - who is threatened by a killer.  

Jane Pringle (Patricia Dainton) lives in the same apartment building as a widow who owns an expensive jewel broach. The neighborhood seems to know about the broach and a local criminal (Nigel Green) decides to steal it. However he can’t find where she’s hidden it and kills the old lady in the process of looking. As he leaves her building he bumps into Jane who senses his presence. She reaches out and touches the intruder thus ‘seeing’ him. The incident is detailed in the local paper with the story identifying Jane as the widow’s beneficiary. The killer sets about his plan to both steal the broach and kill Jane. 

In outline ‘Witness in the Dark’ does sound like one of those tepid 1950's/ early '60's British crime thrillers that fail to actually thrill. But the devil here is in the details thanks to an ever-more-clever plot and the threatening presence of Nigel Green. The character actor was a familiar face to British movie-goers in the 1950’s and ‘60’s and later to international audiences with starring roles in films such as ‘The Ipcress File’, ‘The Wrecking Crew’ and ‘The Kremlin Letter’. Green might have been a leading man in the Stewart Granger mold had he not come across as being more sinister and threatening than romantic.  

The film also stars Patricia Dainton, a forthright and appealing actress who starred in a host of second-line British productions over about a fifteen year period, most of them darkly noir-stained: ‘’Dancing with Crime’ 1947, ‘Tread Softly’ 1952, ‘Paul Temple Returns’ 1952, ‘Operation Diplomat’ 1953, ‘At the Stroke of Nine’ 1957, ‘No Road Back’ 1957, ‘The House on Marsh Road’ 1960, ‘The Third Alibi’ 1961. Dainton arguably was better than the majority of films she was in and in ‘Witness in the Dark’ gives an courageous performance as a woman clearly unencumbered by her disability. Dainton left acting behind in her early thirties after deciding to stay at home with family (she later became manager of W.H. Smith, one of London’s largest bookstores).

















Also featured is Conrad Phillips as an investigating police inspector (Coates) who becomes fond of Jane and a cautious affection begins to develop between them. However even in Coates’ gentle gaze, we're able to get a suggestion of why female blindness has become such a common trope in noir. As Coates does, so are others able to look unrestrained at a blind woman who doesn’t look back or conceal. There’s no immediate point of rejection or resistence. If titillation to be found in that experience then the persistence of the blind-woman-in-peril phenomena in movies starts to makes some sense, albeit unfortunate.

‘Witness in the Dark’ is efficiently directed by Wolf Rilla (‘The Long Rope’ 1953, Roadhouse Girl’ 1953, Piccadilly Third Stop’ 1960, Cairo’1963) and in many ways is more of a movie than its 62-minute length might suggest. Very much worth watching.



Friday, 18 July 2014

THE BIG STEAL (1949)



‘The Big Steal’, starring Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer and scripted by Geoffrey Holmes (Daniel Mainwaring) seems best known and least admired for what it isn’t, namely ‘Out of the Past’ (1947). While 'Out of the Past' (also starring Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer and scripted by Geoffrey Holmes) is looked on as a sublime evocation of film noir, 'The Big Steal’ is seldom looked on at all.

Sitting in the longer and darker shadow of ‘Out of the Past’, it’s understandable that the lighter-hearted ‘The Big Steal’ might get no respect. At just 71 minutes, it’s shorter, slighter and nothing like as memorable. 

However, slighter doesn’t have to mean lesser as far as enjoyment goes and ‘The Big Steal’ is a very easy film to like. Even Bosley Crowther, the high-toned windbag who held the film desk at the 'New York Times' for several decades found it appealing. From his review, July 11, 1949:

"A breath-taking scenic excursion across the landscape of Mexico through villages, on lovely open roads and over towering mountains on switchback highways at a fast and sizzling pace. It seems that a certain tricky fellow, whom Patric Knowles suavely enacts, is trying to escape into the interior of Mexico from Vera Cruz with a load of swag. Seems that his stubborn pursuer is a curious gent played by Robert Mitchum who is accompanied by a lady, prettily played by Jane Greer. Seems that another desperate party, William Bendix is after both and a Mexican police inspector, Ramon Novarro is tailing the lot. Just where and why they are fleeing is rather loosely explained but  obviously they are not friendly people for whenever any of them get together they usually fight. But that is not important and we casually advise that you try not to follow too closely the involution of the plot."
Fair enough. But what's needed now is a case made for ‘The Big Steal’ as film noir. Although the picture has a sunnier disposition, there still are arguments for it as a noir. And as the late Arthur Lyons, author of 'Death on the Cheap: the Lost B Movies of Film Noir' liked to say, "it all starts with the story".   

Lt. Duke Halliday (Mitchum) has been framed for a robbery and is in pursuit of the real thief, Jim Fiske (Knowles). Meantime Halliday is also on the run from his boss, Cpt. Vincent Blake (Bendix) whose reasons for pursuing Halliday are nothing like as straightforward as they first appear. 

Eventually a disillusioned Halliday takes the law into his own hands as 'The ‘Big Steal’ covers some of the same narrative ground as later films by its director Don Siegel. Both Siegel's signature neo-noirs ‘Madigan’ (1968) and ‘Dirty Harry’ (1971) feature cops who defy authority to set things right even if justice done sometimes looks more like vengeance. 
However Siegel whose other classic noirs include 'Private Hell 36' (1954), 'Riot in Cell Block 11' (1954), 'The Line-Up' (1957) doesn't let his characters hang around for long to dwell on the niceties. The director's preference was to cut to the chase. As a former film editor and second-unit man he learned early how to make pictures taut and lean and to get the most out of an action sequence. ‘The Big Steal’ tears along with as many plot twists thrown in as the movie reasonably can handle. 

Mitchum and Greer once again make a great screen twosome. The loose stroppiness of the relationship Holmes has written for them brings out the best in both actors. Mitchum is laconic but alert and Greer delivers one of the most appealing performances of her career (interestingly she came late to the production, replacing Lizabeth Scott who was pulled off the project after Mitchum was arraigned on a marijuana rap). As note-perfect as she was as Cathie Moffat in 'Out of the Past’, director Jacques Tourneur really  didn’t give her much more than just that one note to play as a somewhat impassive 
femme fatale. However there’s nothing at all impassive about the wonderfully peppery Joan Graham. 
Though ‘The Big Steal’ is high-spirited, it's no breezy comedy-suspenser. Its tongue is occasionally in its cheek but there's no archness of a kind poisonous to noir. Siegel is no smirking Hitchcock. ‘The Big Steal’ with its play on betrayal, greed and corruption plus the resonant exchange of tough words and hard fists is still film noir however amiable it may be.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

NIGHT EDITOR (1946)



Director Henry Levin never met an American film genre that he didn’t like or – maybe more accurately – that didn’t like him. Levin was a genial extrovert who took the craft of filmmaking seriously but showed no inclination towards making films that smacked of self-importance. To him a successful movie was just a good story well-told. For nearly four decades, Levin cheerfully marshalled a long parade of popcorn projects which included westerns, adventure stories, musicals, comedies, family dramas, crime pictures, spy thrillers and, nearer the end of his career, action flicks. 

Night Editor, a tightly-wound little crime chiller released in 1946, was one of Levin’s earliest assignments and it clearly demonstrates the brisk yet personable directorial style that would mark his work until the end. Though the low-budget Columbia programmer was never intended by the studio to have a lengthy working life, Night Editor has stubbornly refused to turn in its gun and badge.

Night Editor was based upon a weekly radio series in which a newspaper editor gave the listening audience the 'real inside' on some tawdry crime story. The movie's framing tale is cautionary, this time as recounted to a young reporter who’s been boozing it up, dogging it at work, and neglecting his family. The story unwinds in flashback and focuses on Tony Cochrane (William Gargan), a dour, charmless cop and faithless husband who’s got it bad for a high-class society babe, Jill Merrill (Janice Carter), who also happens to be hitched. 



While working themselves into a sweat in a lovers’ lane one night, the two watch in shock as a woman is beaten to death with a tire iron. Cochrane instinctively moves to nail the culprit but Merrill holds him back and as a result, the detective fails to pursue the killer or report the murder. It’s not a good situation which only gets worse after the body is found and Cochrane finds himself assigned to the case. Cochrane has to work hard to cover his tracks, including those of his car found at the crime scene and now part of the evidence.  

Little by little, the cover-up starts to fall apart, that is until a man whom the detective knows for certain not to be the killer is arrested, tried, and sentenced to death. Cochrane feels remorse but it's clear that all that still takes a back seat to his raw lust for Jill Merrill.



What's not so clear is why the likes of Merrill would bother with a lumpen character like Cochrane, unless he’s got a python in his pants. The glamorpuss seems to have a thing for sex - though of what kind we’re not sure. In Night Editor's most notorious scene, she begins to lift off like a rocket, shouting, "I want to see the body’!" Unhinged by the voyeuristic frenzy, Cochrane gets out of there as fast as he can. Though Cochrane is obsessed with Merrill, he knows what she’s really about and and at one point tries to get rid himself of her in an exchange that’s as insanely ripe as pulp noir gets: 

Him: ‘You’re no good for me. We both add up to zero. I’m sick of the whole crazy mess. I’m sick of playing games. You’re worse than blood poisoning. You’re a rotten-rick through and through. Like something that’s served at the Ritz that’s been laying out in the sun too long’

Her: ‘To hear you talk you’d think I was crawling after you. I don’t need you and I can buy and sell you. That’s right, Tony, you’re not my kind. But your little tootsie-wootsie loves her great big stupid peasant’

Yikes.

Actually it’s also not clear – at least to modern audiences - why Janis Carter, a strikingly beautiful, vivacious and multi-talented actress, never had a bigger movie career. Carter featured in thirty-odd films but never came close to achieving lasting stardom. If it were not for her turns in a number of minor crime dramas like Framed (1947), I Love Trouble (1948), The Missing Juror (1944), The Woman on Pier 13 (1949) as well as in several titles of The Whistler series, Carter would be all but forgotten. 



Arguably, Carter’s recognition problem is the result of her bifurcated screen persona. On one hand, she was the personification of the 1940’s calendar pin-up à la Edward Runci or T.N. Thompson – an alluring mix of both movie star beauty and sophistication and girl-next-door exuberance and playfulness. By rights, Carter might have been expected to have found sure footing in comedies and musicals (her background had been in opera and theater). But the actress also could play it aloof, willful, and calculating - perhaps too easily and too well. Carter's career path took her down some of B-noir’s seediest side streets to places where she could joyously act out her inner bad-girl. If conventional stardom eluded her, lasting status as one of film noir's deadliest femme fatales did not. 



Night Editor also wastes no time visually thanks to Levin's speed-ball direction and the supple camerawork of Burnett Guffey who would become one of film noir’s most emotionally attuned visual stylists: In a Lonely Place (1950), Nightfall (1956), The Brothers Rico (1957)’, Scandal Street (1952), Tightspot (1955), The Harder They Fall (1956), Knock on Any Door (1949), The Reckless Moment (1949), Human Desire (1954), The Sniper (1952). 

Night Editor was intended as a pilot for a series of like films with stories to be told by veteran police beat reporters. The series never happened but at least Night Editor did and thank heaven for that. Without it and other B-titles with similarly deranged impulses, classic film noir would hardly be as compelling and, yes, as much fun to watch. 




Gary Deane


Monday, 14 July 2014

THE GIRL ON THE BRIDGE (USA 1951)


Hugo Haas’s ‘The Girl on the Bridge’ sticks to form: an older man becomes enamoured of a much younger woman and ends up paying a price. This time Haas has himself playing an aging shopkeeper - a jeweller – who stops a destitute mother (Beverly Michaels) from tossing herself off a bridge. He then offers her a place in his home and eventually in his heart. She accepts. Unfortunately Michaels has a sketchy history that catches up with her in the shape of an ex-jailbird husband and things go to hell in a hurry.



As Haas’s movies are known to do, ‘The Girl on the Bridge’ occasionally careers off into tearful sentimentality. The film-maker's saving grace is the underlying sincerity and conviction that he brings. Haas is endearingly self-effacing as an actor and purposeful enough as a director and deserves far greater credit for his low-rent artisanal auteurship. 

Other titles by Haas worth watching are: 'Pickup' (1951), Strange Fascination' (1952), 'One Girl's Confession' (1953), 'Bait' (1954), 'The Other Woman' (1954), 'Edge of Hell' (1956), 'Hit and Run' (1957) and 'Lizzie' (1957).









  














Meantime, here's a link to a ‘This I Believe’ segment from 
the Bob Edwards Show on NPR, broadcast April 9, 2010 in which the Czech-born Haas, a former refugee from the Soviet regime expresses heart-felt admiration for America: 

http://thisibelieve.org/essay/16598/

Sunday, 13 July 2014

HOT CARS (1956)


Her: ‘Do you always sell every car you demonstrate?’ 

Him: ‘No, but I don’t always get taken for a ride either’


Going by the title, it'd be no big surprise if 'Hot Cars', released in 1956, turned out to be another ‘sinsational’ teens-gone-wild flick, joining the likes of 'Dragstrip Girl', 'Teenage Thunder', 'Hot Rod Gang', 'Speed Crazy', 'Hot Rod Girl', 'Young and Dangerous' or 'Joy Ride' on the drive-in screen.

But it's not. There's not a greaser or street rod in sight, just deluxe production rides and foreign sports jobs that are ‘hot’ only because they're all stolen - something Nick Dunn (John Bromfield) finds out after days on the job as a sales jockey for a string of Los Angeles used car lots. 

Dunn realizes that owner Arthur Markel (Ralph Clanton) is fronting a chop-shop (Markel calls it "a refrigeration plant, where hot cars are brought to cool down"). But Dunn now has nowhere to go. Fired from his last car sales job for being straight with the customers, Dunn has a gun to his head. His infant son Davy needs an operation for which Markel will pay if Dunn will play. But Markel already knows that Dunn's done. The dealer was hip to Dunn’s plight before hiring him, using a blonde knockout named Karen Winter (Joi Lansing) to bait the hook. By the time Dunn figures out he’s been duped it’s too late and Markel moves to fit him up as a one-size-fits-all patsy. 

A trim little programmer, 'Hot Cars' was a release of Bel-Air Productions, a joint venture of 20th Century Fox producer/ director Howard W. Koch, and independent producer Aubrey Schenck. For a time in the ‘50’s the company turned out a whack of low-budget, quick-buck features including several titles familiar to fans of raucous B noirs: 'Big House U.S.A.' (1955), 'Crime Against Joe' (1956), 'Three Bad Sisters' (1956), 'The Girl in Black Stockings' (1957), and 'Hell Bound' (1957). 

The film runs fast and smooth on a tuned script by screenwriter Don Martin whose film and television credits extended four decades. Martin scripted several of the original ‘Falcon’ releases and from 1947 to 1958 contributed to a list of B-thrillers, among them: 'Lighthouse' (1947), 'The Hatbox Mystery' (1947), 'Search for Danger' (1949), 'Destination Murder' (1950), 'Shakedown' (1950), 'Double Jeopardy' (1955), 'Confession' (1955), 'The Man is Armed' (1956) and 'The Violent Road' (1958). His pulp novel 'Shed No Tears' was filmed in 1948. Once a 'lost noir', the movie was found a few years back by Alpha Entertainment. 

A chunk of 'Hot Cars' was shot on location, offering some tantalizing sightings of mid-century Los Angeles e.g. the iconic 'Jack’s at the Beach' restaurant and lounge where Joi Lansing first begins stroking John Bromfield to see if he’s up for the ride. Lansing was on the scene in Hollywood from the day the bus pulled up. She was a teenage model then moved into films and TV. Well-known as a party girl, she had affairs with many of the usual suspects including George Raft, Mickey Rooney and Frank Sinatra and was still good for four marriages along the way. 



But Lansing also had her head screwed on straight when it came to her career - though she wasn’t that much of an actress and was never encouraged to be one, given her famously alluring pout and purpose-built figure. Her movie appearances were limited mostly to bit parts (including 'Touch of Evil') but she did better on television, landing smaller supporting roles plus regular stints on 'The Bob Cummings Show', 'Klondike', and 'The Beverly Hillbillies'. 'Hot Cars' is worth it for Lansing alone. She’s sexy and something to watch, especially when she goes to work on the straight-arrow Dunn: 

Him: ‘I told you already, I’m married’.

Her: ‘I have a terrible memory’.

The film also provided a better-than-usual part for John Bromfield, himself a ready-made leading man who never really found solid footing in hollywood. Though tall, dark and athletic, he had to warm a bench that already held hunks like Rory Calhoun, Ray Danton, Brad Dexter, Steve Cochrane, Richard Egan, William Campbell, Jeffrey Hunter, Vince Edwards and John Russell. 




He had started out encouragingly enough in tryout roles for Paramount in 'Sorry, Wrong, Number' and 'Rope of Sand'. As a featured actor he soon had to settle for an assortment of cheap westerns, horror titles and crime programmers like 'The Big Bluff', 'Crime Against Joe', and the exuberantly trashy 'Three Bad Sisters'. Bromfield was a capable enough performer, just not a very interesting one, evincing no particular charisma, sexual intensity or dark places. He was what he was: a handsome, rugged straight-shooter and that’s how he was cast. Well-suited for the role of Nick Dunn, he's just fine in it. 

'Hot Cars' presents more as a conventional crime thriller than film noir. It doesn’t bother itself much with moody atmospherics and much else visually. Karen Winter arrives as a femme fatale but fails to damage or destroy. Nick Dunn is neither a doomed protagonist nor chump. He’s not a victim of his own device. While he is a man in a trap, he’s able to find his own way to an escape. That said, 'Hot Cars' still feels like noir. The basic constructions are there, needing only to be framed slightly differently as they would have been a decade or so earlier. In that way the movie is not so different from others now seen as ‘late-period’. However, none of this much impacts much on the film's high-velocity performance as it rockets along like a monkey on a zip line, propelled by a hipster jazz track by bandleader Les Baxter.

In all 'Hot Cars' is just one very cool ride that’s definitely worth taking out for a drive. 





Saturday, 12 July 2014

13 WEST STREET (1962)


Aerospace scientist (Alan Ladd) gets roughed up by some bad seeds from Beverly Hills after his car runs runs out of gas. When the police investigation headed by Rod Steiger doesn't move along fast enough, Ladd decides to do it his way - which brings down all kinds of bad on both him and his wife (Dolores Dorn). 



Directed by Phillip Leacock, best known for the UK family classic 'The Kidnappers', '13 West Street' is ordinary at best, uneasy at worst. By this time Ladd's late-stage alcoholism and drug use had ravaged his looks and once-mesmerizing screen presence. Steiger just contorts like an impacted bowel.

Much more appealing and worth watching is Dorn, who got other kinds of exposure in the '70's drive-in hits, 'The Candy Snatchers' (1973) and 'Truck Stop Women' (1974). In '13 West Street', she's very good in the part of a docile housewife who stands by her man but later is willing to stand up when the time comes and the need arises.


Friday, 11 July 2014

LOOK IN ANY WINDOW (1961)


Poor Craig Fowler. His father Jay (Alex Nichol) is a self-pitying drunk who’s just been fired from his job. His mother Jackie (Ruth Roman) has had it and is making eyes at the neighborhood skirt-chaser Gareth Lowell (Jack Cassidy).

Meantime, Craig (16 year old Paul Anka) is wrestling with teenage sexual angst and losing. He skulks around at night in a rubber mask looking through bedroom windows, hoping to see what goes on behind closed doors. It's tawdry stuff but by the 1960's film noir had crossed into seamier territory.

'Look in Any Window' forages for its drama among Southern California’s burgeoning suburbs and newly-affluent middle-class who are lusting after the good things in life – cars, swimming pools, televisions, stereos, BBQ’s and a 'lifestyle' to go along with it. 

Not that anyone one appears to be any the happier for it. The husbands work hard to bring home the bacon but are out doing some extra-marital porking on the side. The wives sit and drink by the pool all day and the kids just do whatever they’re going to do.

And on top of it all there’s now a peeping tom on the prowl! This cause-for-alarm brings in a couple of plainclothes cops who are assigned to 24 hour lookout. While they watch and wait, the two get a good look-in on the sexual infidelities, the chronic boozing and domestic upheaval and share their square-eyed view on all the goings-on. 


If 'Look in Any Window' sounds suspect, be comforted. It’s a much better movie than the sum of its lurid storylines and cheesy publicity come-ons - thanks to its ensemble of talented actors and a smartly-crafted script by Lawrence E. Mascott, an occasional writer/ producer  whose only brush with film noir had been a teleplay for the  earlier ‘Johnny Staccato’ TV series starring John Cassavetes.

The film also was William Alland's first and only outing as a director. Alland to that time had been strictly a producer of mostly B-level westerns, science fiction and horror flicks (‘The Creature of the Black Lagoon’, ‘The Colossus of New York’, etc.). However in ‘Look in Any Window’ he pushes past the standard studio style in the direction of a kind of ersatz neo-realism. 

If ‘Look in Any Window’ proves a half-reliable indication of his directoral instincts, Alland looks like someone who later might have materialized as an unapologetic California version of Cassavetes. David Thompson said of the New York director that Cassavetes favored stories of ‘basic, unenlightened, unhappily successful people...a rarity, and rigorously shunned in American films’. On a narrative level at least, that does sound exactly like the movie you’re about to see. 

But maybe of more immediate interest are Ruth Roman and Carole Mathews, both of whom give sharply knowing performances as the neighborhood’s dominant but discontented homemakers. They’re both savvy, attractive, overtly sexual women in their late ’30’s who yearn to be more than just material girls and handmaidens to louts.

Mathews is especially affecting as Betty who makes an honest effort to keep her family together if only for their daughter’s sake. At the same time Betty is tempted by her next-door neighbor, a courtly Italian widower (George Dolenz) who shows as much appreciation for her intelligence as he does for her figure in a one-piece.



On the other hand, Betty's philandering husband Gareth (Cassidy) shows her almost no appreciation or any for their teenage daughter, Eileen (Gigi Perreau). Gareth is a jerk. When Betty tells him she’s leaving and that she hopes his money will buy him happiness, he retorts, “With money, who needs happiness”. 

An actor with matinee-good looks, Cassidy was suave and supremely self-confident and brought it all to many of his roles. He projects the preening arrogance that often comes with an unchecked ego. He was perfect for the part of Gareth.   

Cassidy came from the stage and his film performances tend toward the theatrical. In 'Look in Any Window’ he backs off the gas a little and avoids redlining. It's one of his best screen appearances. 

But what of our protagonist, the hapless Greg? It seems all he really needs is a nice girl to relieve him his virginity and his parents to start acting like adults. 

After a nervous showdown, Greg does at least find a sympathetic ear from the cops and an even more sympathetic heart beating in the girl next door. It’s a start on the road to recovery - or maybe just recidivism. 

Meantime, Paul Anka at this point in his career is not yet an actor but whatever his inadequacies they actually serve his part as the sad little doofus he is.


With a better budget and a bigger box-office cast, 'Look in Any Window' might have ended up another melodramatic and overblown paean to teenage alienation like 'Rebel Without a Cause' – a movie which to some now feels paean-fully dated.

Fortunately the much lesser circumstances conspired to keep Look in any Window’ more believably downbeat and honest. Yes, sometimes sleazy, yes, sometimes creepy but in the end this noir-stained drama does a good job of respecting its story and engaging its characters. 'Look in Any Window' manages to rise just far enough above its trashy B-noir origins to succeed and entertain in blissfully unexpected ways. It’s definitely worth taking a peek.



Thursday, 10 July 2014

INSIDE DETROIT (1956)


“This is Detroit, fabulous city of untold wealth, of might and muscle, of culture and the sweat of human endeavor and success’. This is Detroit, symbolic of America…push(ing) its towering smokestacks of industry against the sky.” 


“This bulletin has reached this desk from Detroit, Michigan, a city conceded to be the Arsenal of America. Now gangsters and organized crime are making a strong bid to gain control of the labor unions so that they can rule the destiny of some 17 million unionized workers. But for the courage of honest union officials, the police and a political regime of integrity, these crime elements would already be in control in Detroit. The film you are about to see, ‘Inside Detroit’ shows what has been done and what can be done by men of faith and fortitude to combat this menace.” 

So opens ‘Inside Detroit’, starring Dennis O’Keefe as Blair Vickers, an honest union official and Pat O’Brien as Gus Linden, a corrupt union boss and gangster. Linden was put away for five years on the testimony of Vickers but now he’s out and looking for revenge. He wants both to regain control of the union and to see Vickers dead. 

Vickers knows this but isn’t ready for Linden’s opening move against him, a bomb placed inside a pinball machine at union headquarters. Vickers survives but not his brother Tom. Vickers manages to rally but Linden, a particularly nasty piece of work, has more in store. 

Meantime, both Linden’s family and his mistress, Joni Calvin (Tina Carver) get dragged into the war which complicates things for Linden but also Vickers. He'd once been good friends with Linden and sweet on his daughter, Barbara (Margaret Field) who has never been able to accept that her father’s a villain. Vickers’s personal involvement endangers him further as Linden launches his take-no-prisoners takeover of the local. 

Though ‘Inside Detroit’ is weighed down by a) its contrived separated-at-birth plotline and b) its solemnly appointed task of ensuring that justice is seen to be done, a couple of things do provide this late period ‘semi-documentary’ noir a nice little lift. 

One is the spirited and committed performances of both its stars O’Keefe and O’Brien; also that of Tina Carver as O’Brien’s mistress. A minor player in a host of film noirs including ‘A Bullet For Joey’ (1955), ‘The Harder They Fall’ (1956), ‘A Cry in the Night’ (1957), ‘Chain of Evidence’ (1957), Carver got cast in roles familiar to Claire Trevor – a beaten-down sister-under-the-mink but one who still has hopes that her next mile down the road of broken dreams won’t be her last. 


Second is director Fred F. Sears whose credits include ‘The Miami Story (1954), ‘Cell 2455 Death Row’ (1955), ‘Teenage Crime Wave’ (1955), Miami Expose’ (1956). Sears, a journeyman helmsman, was handed a lot of lemons by studios in his time. But as with 'Inside Detroit', he nearly always found a way to squeeze some pretty juicy lemonade from them. Drink up.

Postscript: “We wish to thank the United Auto Workers of America for their cooperation without which this picture could not have been made.”



ON THE RUN: EDDIE MACON'S RUN (1983)/ THOMPSON'S LAST RUN (1986)



Though Lawrence Kasdan's Body Heat (1981) and Michael Mann's Thief (1981) kicked off the decade in killer style, the rest of the '80's mostly failed to show up. But along the way Hollywood warhorses Kirk Douglas and Robert Mitchum went the distance to try and back-fill with a pair of old-school crime dramas.
   
In 1983, the still-vital Douglas starred in Eddie Macon’s Run as Carl ‘Buster’ Marzak, a New Jersey detective obsessed with chasing down fugitive Eddie Macon, played by television heart-throb John Schneider. Macon had done what he done to get money for treatment for his sick child but the cop doesn’t give a damn. Marzak’s a case-hardened straight-edge for whom the law is the law. He also, as we find out, is dealing with a few ‘issues’ of his own. 

Everyone in Eddie Macon’s Run pulls their weight in the right direction, including Lee Purcell as a spoiled socialite who decides to shelter the hunky Macon just for the thrill of it (as many women might want to). Schneider, who possessed genuine acting chops, is especially good here - though after seven seasons of The Dukes of Hazzard, he’d made the bed he’d have to sleep in for the rest of his career. 

As for Kirk Douglas, he couldn’t resist the opportunity to blow the doors off. His out-sized performance isn’t that far removed from those immortalized in film noir classics such Ace in the Hole (1951), Detective Story (1951) and The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), even if these earlier titles stand a world apart. Eddie Macon’s Run is a quintessential ‘80’s crime thriller. It’s brash, blunt, melodramatic, stripped clean of remnants of the brooding cool of the previous decade. It looks like it was made for TV but is not at all that bad a film and well-worth watching just to once again see Douglas on a tear.




If Eddie Macon’s Run looks and feels like it was shot for television, Thompson’s Last Run starring Robert Mitchum was just that, a made-for-TV movie which had its broadcast showing on CBS in February of 1986. It’s a lower-key affair than Eddie Macon but then it would be, with featured players Mitchum and Wilfred Brimley in harness as lifelong pals who ended up on different sides of the law - a familiar noir trope.

John Thompson (Mitchum) is a non-violent but still-seven-time-loser who’s facing transfer from an out-of-state prison back to Texas where he’ll serve a life sentence under the state’s habitual offender law. Officer Red Haines (Brimley) asks for old-time’s sake to be assigned to bring Thompson back, even though he's less than a week from retirement. But Thompson’s niece, Louise (Kathleen York) manages to bust Johnny loose during the train transfer. Louise, who’s been turning tricks to support her and young daughter, believes that John has enough money buried away to allow her to leave the life and for all of them together to disappear. At least, that’s what she believes.

Unlike Eddie Macon, Thompson’s Last Run reels out slowly and without a lot of heightened action. Once freed, Thompson isn’t that ready to go on the lam. For one thing, he’s enjoying spending some time with an old girlfriend, Pookie (Susan Terrell), another tart-with-a-heart. Meanwhile Haines begins to put things back together after the escape and to close in. 

It's low-rent fare but Mitchum, being the crusty pro that he was, is wholly present and still looking to be enjoying himself. Brimley, who was seldom cast to look like anyone enjoying himself, whether ‘Sherriff’, ‘Doc’, or ‘Coach’, stays true to form as the curmudgeonly Haines. Thompson’s Last Run offers a workaday, believable story about two old-timers, both long-time friends and unreconstructed adversaries, who’ve managed their way through and around it all without killing one another. This not a movie in which we'd want it any other way. 



(Revised June 2017)

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

FORBIDDEN (1948)


Like fine wine and Guinness Stout, genre movies don’t always travel well. These would include an unfortunate number of cheapie British B-thrillers featuring name Hollywood actors brought over to England in the 1940’s and ‘50’s to add box office allure both at home and abroad.

Film stars such as George Raft, Dane Clark, Dennis O’Keefe, Alex Nichol, Dan Duryea, Arlene Dahl, Ginger Rogers, John Derek, Barbara Payton, Dana Wynter, and Jayne Mansfield all crossed the pond to star. Television had weakened their hold on audiences and the UK productions gave them opportunities to continue to feature and to earn an easy dollar (in some cases, a much needed one).

Unfortunately, their presence didn’t always make for better pictures. Too often it did more harm than good, as it was evident the stars were there only to be there. It also magnified the sense of de facto cultural uncertainty around these British thrillers. Already they were seen as imitative and rather tepid versions of American-style crime dramas. Adding token Hollywood involvement to the mix only underscored the conviction that these productions were not the real thing. 


However, one movie actually strengthened by the presence of an American actor was ‘Forbidden’ (1948), a stylish noir thriller starring Douglass Montgomery. 
Montgomery had starred in the early ‘30’s opposite actresses such as Joan Crawford and Katherine Hepburn but by the end of the decade was yesterday’s news. After serving four years in the Canadian army in WWll, he'd become no news at all. However, the good-looking and affable Montgomery was ideally cast as a scientist estranged from his work and unhappy husband living emotionally and sexually apart from his wife. That his character happened to be Canadian served to reinforce his otherness.

Jim Harding was once a promising research chemist but through circumstance now works as a patent medicine man peddling hair restorer on Blackpool’s Golden Mile funfair. There he becomes attracted to Jeannie Thompson (Hazel Court) who spins candy floss at nearby stall. The two get together and begin an affair without Jim revealing to Jeannie that in fact he’s married to Diana (Patricia Burke). 


While not exactly a femme fatale, Diana is one of the most venomous women in all of film noir. She’s a failed stage actress who persists in trying to get back on the boards even if it means sleeping with any joker she hopes can help her get there. Meanwhile, she refuses to give Jim a divorce because he still does provide her some financial security however meager. As she says, “Having a husband in the background at least gives me some choice”. 


Diana hears of Jim’s affair from a local spiv, Johnny (Kenneth Griffin who specialized in playing assorted lowlifes and weasels). Diana confronts Jeannie, tells her that Jim is married, and attempts to buy her off, calling Jeannie “a fairground slut” and saying, “Why don’t you stick to your own kind or don’t they pay enough?” 




When Jim finds out what Diana’s done, he decides that he’s had enough. Diana takes thyroid pills to control her weight and with his knowledge of chemistry, he figures he can increase the dosage enough to kill her without raising suspicion. Following through, he later finds her dead in their apartment and takes and buries her under the slate tiles of his factory lab. But it doesn't end there.



Harding is not a character we should like. He's complacent, compromised at every turn and often too ready to play the victim. And yet Montgomery persuades us to go along with Harding and to sympathize with him. Like Richard Basehart in ‘He Walked by Night’ (1948), Montgomery takes a character from whom we’d maybe rather keep our distance and renders him compelling.

The two female leads, Hazel Court as Jeannie Thompson and Patricia Burke as Harding’s wife Diane provide a fascinating contrast. Court, an actress with a doll-like radiance is a decent working class carny girl who knows her place. As she says, “I tried looking up over the fence once. Now I’m in me own back yard and it suits me fine”; Burke’s Diana on the other hand, is convinced her place is somewhere else but she’s really just ‘mutton dressed up as lamb’ and the only one who doesn’t know it is her.



‘Forbidden happens mostly in the vicinity of the funfair, a natural gathering place for fast-buck artists, con men, grifters, and wide boys like Johnny and his gang. The amusement park is a recurrent location in film noir and often is more threatening than amusing. And ‘Forbidden’ is a threatening film. 

Told in flashback, 'Forbidden' was given an expressive direction by George King (’Crimes at the Dark House’ 1940), ‘The Shop at Sly Corner' 1947) and cinematographer Hone Glendinning's camerawork is visceral. Glendinning also shot ‘The Shop on Sly Corner' 1947, ‘The Noose’ 1948, and ‘Shadow of the Past’1950). 

Once considered a ‘lost’ noir ' Forbidden' is part of Odeon Entertainment’s ‘The Best of British Collection’.





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