Wednesday, 6 August 2014

HELL BOUND (1957)

“I have an allergy - people with a conscience.” - Jordan

“There isn’t any part of the anatomy I don’t know, even with my eyes closed” – Paula


Two titles with differing ambitions, the wildly baroque ‘Touch of Evil‘ (1958) and the grimly fatalistic 'Odds Against Tomorrow’ (1959) have come to signify the final erosion of classic film noir. But a few grungy late-period B-movie thrillers like ‘Hell Bound’ (1957) had already gone ahead ahead and conjured up what some of the actual post-noir detritus might look like. 

Some might be more than enough. ‘Hell Bound’ is a seamy side-show of raw pulp psychodrama, whacked-out dialog, unrestrained violence, sexpots in glasses, foot fetishism, and an excitable psychotronic sound track (scored by Les Baxter, one of the emperors of tiki bar exotica). While the film is recognizably of the classic cycle, it also recognizably looks to be heading off somewhere else.  

From the opening frame we’re not sure where we are or what’s going on other than there’s a film-in-film being screened outlining how a store of medical-grade narcotics could be boosted from a cargo ship. It’s a clever set-up involving a ship-board snitch, a tame port authority health officer, a bogus seaman and a cool-headed nurse imposter. 

When the show's over and lights go on we get to see who else has been watching. Among those is crime boss Harry Quantro (Frank Fenton) who says he’s seen everything he needs to. Quantro’s ready to stake the heist but on one condition. He wants his eye-catching girlfriend Paula (actress/real-life Playboy Playmate June Blair) to play the nurse who’ll bundle the drugs off the ship. Just to protect his investment you understand. 



Jordan (John Russell) a free-lance villain who’s both planned the caper and made the demo film readily gives way. If it means having to side-line his girlfriend Jan (Margo Woode) already installed in the getaway ambulance, so be it. Jordan has his own plans for the quarter million dollars’ worth of uncut dope and doesn’t intend to let a cheap tramp like Paula get in his way. Jordon’s already got his hands full with other gang recruits Stanley Thomas (George E. Mather) a feckless and desperate drug addict who’s scheduled as the phony sailor-in-distress and Herbert Fay Jr. (Stanley Adams) the real-life health officer and an angry self-loathing neurotic. 


  
Jordan knows full well that his so-called crew is a sack of grief. But for practical and personal reasons he has to play it as it lays and figures he can maintain control through fear if nothing else. However as the big day approaches things start to come unhinged. Thomas goes to a burlesque joint to score dope and goes berserk when his dealer - who's blind - only seems to have eyes for a no-hope stripper; Fay Jr. gets fall-down drunk and ugly in a bar and starts shooting his fat mouth off; later Jordan beats Thomas senseless and then takes after Paula when he finds out she’s fallen for the ambulance driver, Eddie Mason (Stuart Whitman) and about to blow the whole operation. As for the snitch - the only guy who’s played it straight - once Jordan’s got what he needs from him, he kills him. That too now seems like part of the plan.



Jordan easily rates among the most amoral and dangerous villains in film noir and as played by John Russell also one of the coolest - a totally disaffected, very present day killer. Had Donald Westlake/ Richard Stark penned the ‘Parker’ series during Russell’s on- screen working life, the actor would have been the one to play him. Russell was big and handsome, a former college athlete and a decorated ex-marine. A force on-screen, Russell in ‘Hell Bound’ is terrifyingly all there. 



Eventually the combination of Jordon's calculation and ruthlessness manage to get things on track and likewise ‘Hell Bound’ begins now to accelerate in a straighter line towards the climax. As the prospect of further mishap appears pushed to the side, we can cast a hopeful eye on the prize. Maybe it’s not too late for this thing to happen. Maybe.

‘Hell Bound’ keeps the suspense turned up high. Some of the heat is a result of the tension that exists between the things that we readily recognize - the familiar narratives and visual mechanics of film noir - and some that we don’t - or might just rather not. We know that classic noir would lose out in the ‘60’s to far more grim and exploitative expressions of its own dark impulses. And we don’t have to look too hard in ‘Hell Bound’ for those grindhouse moments. Overall there’s not a hell of a lot in ‘Hell Bound’ of what Eddie Muller describes as classic noir’s romantic ‘suffering in style’. Mostly it's just suffering.



‘Hell Bound’ in its own morbidly fraught fashion makes for a fascinating low-rent match-up against better regarded A-list noirs such as ‘The Asphalt Jungle’ (1950) and the ‘The Killing’ (1956). The movie was director William J. Hole’s first feature (his career was mostly in television) but he had veteran cinematographer Carl E. Guthrie on set to help out with some of the visual heavy lifting. Guthrie was a pro and by the time he was assigned to ‘Hell Bound’ he'd notched over a hundred movies including ‘Flaxy Martin (1947), ‘Backfire’ (1950) and the groundbreaking ‘Caged’ (1950’). 



Hence a fair bit of ‘Hell Bound is more expertly set-up and impressively lensed than might be expected especially the many exterior sequences shot in and around gloomy commercial/ industrial sites. The film ends in the surreal, horrific desolation of a Los Angeles’ Red trolley graveyard, the real-life result of the corrupt ‘decommissioning’ of one of the largest public transit systems in the world. Hell bound indeed.

However the film’s most lasting sequence is that of Jordon’s brutal beating of Stanley. The urgency and fury of it anticipates the opening scene of Sam Fuller’s ‘The Naked Kiss’ (1964) in which Constance Towers thrashes her pimp. Both are unexpected, relentless, suffocating.

But then not much about ‘Hell Bound’ is expected. It's definitely not a standard-issue heist title in which some single fated moment of human weakness or logistical coming-apart serves to undo an otherwise perfect crime. ‘Hell Bound’ is wreckage from the word go  - and what could be more noir than that.



Tuesday, 5 August 2014

THE MIAMI STORY (1954)


'The Miami Story' was the last of a succession of classic-period noirs called ‘semi-documentaries’(the earliest being 'The House on 92nd Street' 1945). These were framed by a ‘stentorian’ voice-over that informed us first as to "what we are about to see" and then would further guide us through the film. The device was intended to provide added gravitas to stalwart tales of the forces of authority as they fearlessly struggled against enemies of society and state such as mobsters and communists. And it's annoying as hell. 

Thankfully the narration on 'The Miami Story's is far less intrusive than that of many better known semi-docs e.g. 'Call Northside 777' (1948), 'Walk a Crooked Mile' (1948) or 'Walk East on Beacon' (1952). This one would rather just get on with it and at a brisk 75 minutes long, does it ever.

The bad guys in this one are members of a Miami organization led by kingpin Tony Brill (Luther Adler) who has a lock both on criminal activity in the city and the City itself. However a Cuban gang is starting to muscle in and make things uncomfortable for 'the syndicate'. Meantime, the cops don't seem able to do much so an independent committee of the prominent and the virtuous decides it has to fight fire with fire. It enlists the help of a reformed Chicago gangster, Mick Flagg (Barry Sullivan) who knows the whole syndicate set-up and also has personal scores to settle with Brill.



While 'The Miami Story' has a few plot holes big enough to fall through and never be seen again, director Fred F. Sears pushes the pace hard and fast enough that we’re around them before we really take notice. 

Sears showed an auteurist’s touch when it came to mid-line films (somewhere between an 'A' and a 'B') like 'The Miami Story' and he turned out a bunch of them in a very short time: Target Hong Kong Kong (1953), The 49th Man (1953), Cell 2455 Death Row (1955), Chicago Syndicate (1955), Teenage Crime Wave (1955), Miami Expose (1956), Rumble on the Docks (1956), Escape from San Quentin (1957). Few directors were more adept than Sears at successfully negotiating a way around so-so scripts and modest production budgets. 

The 'Miami Story' also provided Sears with a stronger core of actors than he’d had to work with prior. 

First up was Barry Sullivan, a popular supporting and ‘character' lead whose good looks and understated authority ensured him a long career in films and television. Sullivan was a born B picture actor and a good one, lifting up any film he was in both in quality and prestige. As British writer Andrew Spicer has written  of him he had the range to turn in persuasive performances as a suave schemer ('Suspense' 1946, 'Framed' 1947, 'No Questions Asked' 1951); a sympathetic if weak-willed victim ('Jeopardy' 1953,'Loophole' 1954); or an insanely jealous husband ('Cause for Alarm' 1951). In A pictures Sullivan could never have been anything more than a leading man but in B's he could be a tragic hero. Sullivan featured best as a man on the edge and sometimes over it. In his signature film of the classic noir cycle 'The Gangster' (1947) he plays Shubunka, a small-time racketeer who is self-loathing, paranoid and doomed. It's an extraordinary film and performance both.



In 'The Miami Story', he mostly gets to act tough, which he does as well anyone; likewise, Luther Adler as Brill the mob boss, and bombshell Adele Jergens as Brill’s moll, Gwen Abbott. Jergens is particularly scary - partly, it can be said, due to some weirdly bad hair-styling and more heft than she'd carried to that time in other pictures. Gwen is dangerously damaged goods and a nervous threat to everyone including her better younger sister Holly, played by Beverly Garland. 

But if that's not enough, another big star of 'The Miami Story' is the Miami area itself, especially Miami Beach. Much of the movie was shot on location and shows off the city at its  swankiest Mid-Century Modern around Ocean Drive and environs. 

Those were the days and 'The Miami Story's trip back in time is well worth however much it costs to get there.

DON MARTIN: SCREENWRITER IN THE SHADOWS

When queried on the whys and wherefores of film noir, the late Arthur Lyons, founder and patron saint of the Palm Springs Film Noir F...