Pretty Poison (1968)

Prettypoison1.jpgBoy. What a week. I met you on Monday, fell in love with you on Tuesday, Wednesday I was unfaithful, Thursday we killed a guy together. How about that for a crazy week, Sue Ann?” – Anthony Perkins as Dennis Pitt

Director Noel Black himself described the story as “a Walter Mitty type who comes up against a teenybopper Lady Macbeth.” It seems like the perfect shorthand to get a line on the characters and the actors more than rise to the challenge.

By all accounts,  Black, a recent UCLA film grad, wasn’t much of a director, at least when it came to working with actors. But he could sure edit a film together. The cutting helps to accentuate this trippy world with the spliced together images of Anthony Perkins’ unstable psyche.

After securing his release from a mental institution, Dennis (Perkins) is continually fixated on all sorts of fantasies — playing games full of cops and robbers and CIA agents. He keeps surveillance on a pretty blonde majorette (Tuesday Weld) drilling nearby and unwittingly meets her at a local hot dog stand. They make contact and his nonchalant cool captures her imagination.

We are always wondering if they actually take each other seriously. But the beauty of the script is how they never seem to question one another. They just go with it. What seems utterly ludicrous to us as an audience is so very believable to them.

It relies on Anthony Perkins being able to pull it off and he gets it spot-on with every line coming out of his mouth with total conviction. He makes us believe he’s serious with every bit of fanciful conspiracy he matter-of-factly dreams up.  At his core is this benign human being. We get a sense he wouldn’t hurt a fly. Of course, watching Psycho (1960) might give us a different inclination. And that’s part of the issue.

Perkins’ performance can never be seen outside of the shadow of his greatest triumph and simultaneously his most constricting role. Because everything he does is informed by the part of Norman Bates. If we were able to remove this distraction, his part in Pretty Poison would feel much the same as Tuesday Weld’s does. Because in films like Friendly Persuasion he was the shy, All-American boy. But conventions are getting subverted left and right.

They both make us start believing in their reality. They rendezvous in “makeout valley” only to get ousted by some cops and Dennis tries to hold down his job at the plant, despite constantly being distracted. He professes that aliens are trying to infiltrate the water supply and then very reluctantly stakes out Sue Ann’s home to spy on the mother’s boyfriend.

They are swimming in the invigorating paranoia of their own little world and the drugged-out love romp they create for themselves. Each reverie-like frame bathed in sunbeams and an ever refracting prism of colors. For these very reasons, Pretty Poison could play as a companion film to The Shooting (1967) – another acid singed genre picture.

But at some point, it begins to turn on its head. Because Dennis is the one we suspect will become dangerous due to his erratic behavior. It seems all too inevitable as his parole officer (John Randolph) continues to warn him. Yet the killer joke of the whole movie is how it plays out for real.

This pretty blonde in the high school honor roll turns out to be a femme fatale sipping Pepsi. What are the chances? A little friendly neighborhood murder is what’s on the docket one evening. She gets an emotional high from her adventures with Dennis only to take them to an even deadlier end. The film is not meant to make conventional sense. It never does.

Instead, it operates in alternate realities, delusions of grandeur mixed with sociopathic behavior. It is an instance of a story having two edges, both the terrifying and darkly funny. If there was ever an obvious precursor to Gone Girl (2014), Pretty Poison seems like an obvious jumping off point.

Unfortunately, it was the casualty of absolutely horrific timing. Not only did it not get the distribution it needed but the year of 1968 was punctuated by the assassinations of both MLK and RFK. A film with such content was probably not on the top of the public’s watch list.

For the actors as well there were unfortunate circumstances. Since it was Perkins’ first highly visible American film since Pyscho (1960), his typecasting was again solidified because the shades of an unhinged Norman Bates type is all people seemed to focus on. Tuesday Weld hated the entire process and considered it one of if not the worst of her performances. Though her rapport with Black might have been nonexistent, somehow an evocative performance of contradictions still comes through to compliment her costar.

It’s easy to see where the roots of a cult following might grab hold of such an idiosyncratic picture as this. It fits into the love-on-the-run canon with the likes of Bonnie Clyde (Weld was offered the lead initially) and then Badlands (1973) but Pretty Poison is an even smaller scale story never breaking out of a small town scope.

Its neuroticism and quirks are incubated in such a way to deliver a tone indicative of late 60s disillusionment within the youth culture. Weld might be the finest example as she along with a select few represented the prim and proper girl-next-door sensibilities of the 1950s. Pretty Poison blows the lid off the past and in its own unassuming way it offers a warped portrait of where the world might be heading. If the right person dusts off this offbeat genre flick, it casts a certain off-the-wall spell to capture the imagination.

3.5/5 Stars

Boomerang (1947)

Boomerang!Boomerang shares some similarities to Call Northside 777 (1948) and Panic in the Streets (1950). Like the latter Elia Kazan film, this one boasts a surprising amount of real-world authenticity and a loaded cast of talent. Those are its greatest attributes as Kazan makes the bridge between the stage and the silver screen. He brings with him a sensibility for a certain amount of social realism matched with quality acting connections he had accrued in his career thus far.

The only problem is it’s not very compelling just a good, solid, well-made human drama without much fanfare. At the very least, it hits all the procedural beats it’s supposed to. Sometimes that’s alright and it is interesting the narrative goes fairly in-depth into actual events which occurred back in 1926.

In that year a beloved local preacher in Connecticut was gunned down by a fugitive who ran off in the night before he could be apprehended but not before seven witnesses caught a glimpse of his face. The rest of the film is a buildup of the frenzy churned up in the aftermath. The police frantically try and catch the man-at-large with the papers on their back and several political reappointments hanging in the balance.

It’s true Boomerang does become a more interesting exercise once we’ve entered a courtroom and a man (Arthur Kennedy) is put on trial for the murder of the aforementioned minister — a defendant who has pleaded his innocence since the beginning although the evidence is stacked up against him including a vengeful witness (Cara Williams). Except the district attorney (Dana Andrews) takes a stand to promote his innocence. In this case, it’s not quite so straightforward.

True to form and all parties involved, the acting is a great joy to watch with a mixture of untrained actors filling in as the locals of a sleepy Connecticut town and then bolstered by a formidable supporting cast.

We have Dana Andrews at the center but he is buttressed by some quality performers who would make a name for themselves in subsequent years on the stage and screen. These include Lee J. Cobb, Ed Begley, Karl Malden, and, of course, Arthur Kennedy.

Not one of them is a classically handsome or groomed Hollywood star but in the post-war years, they would be crucial to the trajectory of noteworthy films of the decade. Look no further than Death of a Salesman, A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), On the Waterfront (1954), or 12 Angry Men (1957) as living proof.

The underlining moral conundrum of this film is evident as Henry Harvey is faced with political opposition and heady threats with his doting wife (Jane Wyatt) acting as his pillar of strength. The sides begin to get drawn up as the District Attorney takes a stand to uphold real justice and not just win another conviction and approval from the local populace. It’s a risk but also a move of immense integrity.

The real-life inspiration for this man, Homer Cummings, far from becoming governor took on another position instead, as Attorney General of the United States under FDR. Not too shabby.  The same can be said of this picture. Not too shabby as far as docudrama noir go.

3.5/5 Stars

Scandal Sheet (1952)

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There’s no need to mince words here. With a film christened Scandal Sheet you already have a good idea of what you’re probably going to get before it arrives. That’s fine. Straight to the point can be good.

But the media angle is only a half of it. It’s as much a film of lurid cover-ups and back-alley beatings as it is about dirty journalism. You need those lightning rods for a juicy scoop and it’s precisely these types of events that bring the newspaper hounds out of the woodwork.

If Samuel Fuller couldn’t wind up being the director of his original story, The Dark Page, then there’s arguably no better man to take up the project than Phil Karlson who has comparable sensibilities and an appreciation for gritty crime pictures and pulp fiction though he’s not quite as dynamic.

It’s true at one point Howard Hawks even had the project flagged to star two of his past favorites in Humphrey Bogart and Cary Grant. What a film that would have been. But when Karlson came aboard John Payne was offered the role (he would work with Karlson later on) that ultimately went to John Derek.

He and his faithful cameraman (Henry Morgan) are integral pieces of one of the most parasitic relationships on the Bowery that develop between newspapermen and the police. They’re rather like scavengers picking over the carrion or any other delectable scraps that might perchance be tossed their direction.

However, oftentimes the methods of an organization are employed from the top down. In fact, Steve McCleary (Derek) has become the star reporter under the tutelage of Mark Chapman (Broderick Crawford) the man who has taken over the helm of the New York Express. He took the once reputed but faltering behemoth and turned it into a sensationalized tabloid that subsequently has the highest readership it’s been able to attain in years. There’s no denying the stuff sells like hotcakes fresh off the griddle. What can you say? Sensation is tasty stuff and scandal is the favorite food of the masses.

The paper’s latest gimmick in pursuit of ever-rising levels of circulation is the implementation of a Lonely Hearts Ball trying to play up the angle of a few nobodies falling in love. It’s a real sob fest with all the trimmings for a great story. No one knew how right that assertion was.

What follows is a conflict of interest that’s ripe with dramatic irony. There’s a murder investigation and the paper is embroiled in the middle of it trying to drudge up the answers with the help of their readership. With such hysteria at its core Scandal Sheet shares, some of the same journalism beats of While the City Sleeps (1956).

However, in this picture, Donna Reed is the moral center because how could we ever suspect her of being anything other than that clean, respectful, Midwestern gal with heaps of integrity? She’s much the same here not wanting to besmirch her editorials with sleaze and believing in old washed up writers when no one else will give them the time of day. Even when her boyfriend is guilty of precisely that. In fact, that’s where a bit of their romantic tension is founded.

Steve’s good at his job and a real bloodhound on the beat and a handsome devil at that but a fairly ignorant stiff, the most aggravating reality about the picture being just that. The case is right under his nose and he doesn’t see it for the entirety of the film.

The easiest way to try and explain it away is much the way Walter Neff did in Double Indemnity (1944) though the roles are reversed, “The guy you were looking for was too close. Right across the desk from ya.” Except Broderick Crawford is no Edward G. Robinson and there’s not the same genial relationship that can be attributed to the earlier picture. It’s all business.

That’s why his romantic ties are so important. Because that’s the one area where he is steered in the right direction. Once again, Donna Reed is that crucial moral compass in a choppy sea lacking any amount of rectitude otherwise.

But then again, you get the feeling Donna Reed would never turn up in a Sam Fuller picture if this was his. Still, that should not completely neutralize what Karlson was able to do here — developing a film that’s pretty much as advertised. A gritty bowels drama that cases the insides of New York drudging up all sorts of drama in the name of yellow journalism. If that’s what you’re looking for you’re in for a treat.

3.5/5 Stars

The Sniper (1952)

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From the outset with Stanley Kramer’s name emblazoned over the opening credits it gives an indication of what this film is as does the name of Director Edward Dymtryk. Kramer is, of course, remembered as one of the most fervent socially-conscious producers behind a string of classics like Defiant Ones (1958), Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) and…It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963)?

But then there’s Dymtryk who was one of the most visible casualties of the blacklist as one of the scapegoated Hollywood 10 and also the helmer of such earlier pictures as Crossfire (1947) which had a very obvious message behind it.

Thus, the Sniper looks to be the perfect collaboration with a harrowing story that hopes to simultaneously enact some amount of social change. We are introduced to a man who is one of the “sex criminals” alluded to in the opening crawl who provide a major problem for the local police force.

In this case, we get stuck inside the head of the troubled figure named Eddie Miller, a deliveryman for a local dry cleaning service, who is plagued by not only paranoia and cold sweats but a burning hatred of women.

There’s a peeping tom, voyeuristic manner to the camerawork as we follow Eddie and his morbid curiosity. He sits in his second-floor apartment picking out women through the scope of his sniper rifle and pretending to pull the trigger.  He’s an unstable personality, an isolated individual with a mother complex that sends him seeking out brunettes. But rather than getting some perverse pleasure out of the thought or actual implementation of their suffering, it comes off as a nearly uncontrollable urge.

So rather than hating Eddie for his indiscretions, it’s quite easy to pity his impulses because they feel like precisely that. Something he cannot seem to rein in. In one particular moment, he sticks his hand on the hot burner of a stovetop scalding his hand because it’s the only release he can get from the maddening thoughts hammering inside his skull.

There’s also the suggestion that people like Eddie are the ones who need mental help and yet they get kicked back out to the curb in deference to more priority cases — the suggestion being that physical injury is more pressing than psychological problems. It’s true that it can be a difficult issue to reconcile with.

The front half of The Sniper proves to be a surprisingly frank depiction and we can attribute this to the fact that as an audience we get so closely tied to Eddie Miller as a character. It’s an unflinching portrayal delivered remarkably well by Arthur Franz.

But the picture falters in its efforts to get didactic and it becomes overtly a message picture instead of purely a character study of a troubled man. We sense it trying to make its point rather than allowing the actions to dictate what happens and thus allowing the audience members to arrive at their own conclusions.

The most obvious extension of this is the all-knowing psychiatrist who lays down his wisdom though no one seems ready to listen to his insights. He’s a proponent of nipping the problem of sex offenders in the bud at a latent stage putting them into a mental institution with newly proposed legislation. It’s not that the idea is bad but it’s the execution in cinematic term that proves heavy-handed.

The latter half is more about the investigation to find the killer headed by Detective Frank Kafka (Adolphe Menjou). Meanwhile, Frank Faylen was apparently promoted and transferred from New York following his days in Detective Story (1951). Marie Windsor appears in an uncharacteristic sympathetic role as a victimized nightclub pianist. Her outcome and a number of others subsequently turn The Sniper into a commentary on gender whether it meant to be or not.

I rather like how the film utilizes the streets of San Francisco and there’s no need to overtly make a point that the film is set there, existing within police precincts, humble apartment buildings, and hilly streets. It’s simply the world that the film makes its home. It includes a rather authentic Chinese restaurant which besides providing a little flavor, shows that Menjou could use some work on his chopstick form. Though on a positive note, Victor Sen Yung snags another uncredited appearance after showing up in the S.F. set Woman on the Run (1950) as well.

Still, despite the reality that the picture gets a bit too preachy, there’s often a modicum of truth in this type of film we could do well to consider. The same psychiatrist notes the following, “You’ll catch him and they’ll kill him and everyone will forget about it. That is until the next one comes along and it’ll start all over again.”

It’s the endless cycle that we as humans allow without actually ever fixing problems. Such issues cause me to say, again and again, there’s nothing new under the sun. The same old problems just reassert themselves in different ways. It doesn’t help when our attention spans get shorter and shorter while our knowledge of history continues to dwindle.

3.5/5 Stars

Detective Story (1951)

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“Who are you, God? Didn’t you ever make a mistake?” – Cathy O’Donnell as Susan Carmichael

Counselor at Law (1933) was an early William Wyler film from the 1930s that shares some cursory similarities with this feature. Along those lines, Detective Story proves to be an exploration into the life of a cop much as the earlier film allowed us to look through the keyhole at the life of a lawyer (John Barrymore). Fundamentally they also both provide the same cross-section of society with Wyler navigating the space in such a way to tie the threads together while keeping things engaging.

Detective Story proves to be a stage play and a morality play in one fell swoop and that is decidedly both good and bad. It’s true that the crossroads of so many films and talents meet here and all share a room together.

There’s another fiery role for “Mr. Instensity” himself Kirk Douglas as Jim McLeod, a man who strives to rid the streets of criminals and put them where they belong: The electric chair. He wants to be judge, jury, and executioner if at all possible. His all-out war on crime can be traced back to his lousy father. Ever since those days, he’s vowed to be everything his old man never was — not tolerating any kind of infraction of the law. It’s a thoroughly intense portrayal though it jumps off the emotional deep end a few times too often.

It’s his supporting cast that steadies him and guides the film toward something more authentic and attainable. William Bendix was potentially slated for a reunion with Alan Ladd before Douglas ultimately took the role. However, he trades out his image as a heavy for a policeman with a decent dose of humanity.

Frank Faylen is the acting desk clerk who fields all the incoming calls that come his way. Meanwhile, Lee Grant is a skittish young purse snatcher who winds up at headquarters for her first offense. Cathy O’Donnell (wife of screenwriter Robert Wyler) plays her always immediately likable ingenue role as the young woman trying to bail out her childhood friend on a charge of theft.

There are a number of others including journeymen cops, journalists, and four-time losers and then there’s McLeod’s wife Mary (Eleanor Parker). I’m not sure what to evaluate Eleanor Parker on but in the recent months, I have gained an appreciation for the fact that, good or bad, she will fearlessly commit to a role and pour her all into it. She owns a very eclectic body of work as well but Detective Story sees her succumbing to histrionics much like her onscreen husband.

Because at its best Detective Story is a slice-of-life drama that gives us insight into humanity much as Counselor at Law (1933) did. But this picture is high on the dramatics and whether or not they are completely believable is up for contention.

It’s also a fairly frank picture at that — at least for its day — though it does point out the duplicity that’s so blatantly clear.  Here a taboo is utilized as the fodder for melodrama as something so despicable. Yet in the heart of Hollywood itself, there were undoubtedly many women who did similar covering up jobs to save their reputations.

The Hays Code could try and keep taboos under raps but in doing so they were ignoring an unfortunate reality. It is necessary to remove the shrouds and let these things live on in the light.

But far from seeing this film with our enlightened postmodern sensibilities and condemning it for making such a frank subject seem sullied and unseemly, I would contend that this picture leaves me melancholy. Not for the reasons you might expect either.

I feel sorry for women ostracized and labeled as “tramps” like Mary is. I’m ashamed that there is a standard that everything must be good and pure. There is no room for grace. It’s this hypocritical nature that’s blatantly obvious in McLeod with the bitter irony coming to fruition. He became the very person that he was striving never to become.

The depressing depths of the drama suffocate any chance of a laugh by the film’s latter half and so while I’m all for fatalistic even tragic denouements in the right context, this film is so utterly discouraging and it has nothing to do with desiring a happy ending. It’s more closely related to the lens in which the film seems to use. There’s no integrity left in humanity. A world where beating hearts of flesh have been transformed into hearts of stone. That’s a very dark world to try and reconcile with.

Worst yet it does try by heaping on more drama and last minutes heroics to right all the wrongs in a matter of seconds. So we lose on two accounts. The picture doesn’t have the guts enough to dig into its disconsolate inclinations and still for almost its entire runtime it’s focused on those precise conflicts making it supremely difficult to enjoy Detective Story as much as we could have.

3.5/5 Stars

The Enforcer (1951)

220px-The_Enforcer_1951.JPGNot that this should deter you completely but The Enforcer isn’t a particularly unique crime film by any stretch of the imagination. Still, we have Humphrey Bogart headlining the police procedural not unlike a Call Northside 777 (1948), The Naked City (1948), or Panic in the Streets (1950).

He’s the acting district attorney entrenched in the war against syndicated crime in the city. And the case he has topples like a house of cards when his one key witness is terminated. All the efforts behind four long years of tireless legwork go out the window.

They knew that it was an expansive operation with a multitude of contracts, a laundry list of hit men, and an undertaker on the payroll. They subsequently unearthed abandoned cars, drained marshes for the dead bodies, and questioned countless others who were purported to be involved. And yet it all seemed all for naught. No one knew enough or else they weren’t talking.

But Martin Ferguson (Bogart) is not about to let his case against the wanted crime boss Albert Mendoza (Everett Sloane) crumble that easily. There’s got to be another way to nab him. The script from Martin Rackin spends the majority of the time filling in all the details. In fact, he probably spends too much time before finally tacking on Bogart`s last-minute hunch almost as if it were an afterthought.

Ultimately, The Enforcer could almost be called a Raoul Walsh picture as the veteran director and friend of Humphrey Bogart took over the project when the incumbent Bretaigne Windust was taken seriously ill early in production.

No disrespect to Mr. Windust at all but the film got a leg up thanks to Raoul Walsh who directed many of the film’s more volatile sequences, capturing the action with bullets flying and fists flailing — brought to us with his usual dynamism. That counteracts some of the faulty storytelling that bogs the plot down.

The narrative structure is strikingly similar to aspects of The Killers (1946) but it’s hardly executed in the same gripping fashion. In fact, the layering of the flashbacks is hardly ideal even if it feels canonically very typical of what we often term noir. By the film’s end, whether or not the story gets told feels beside the point but nevertheless, Walsh manages to provide us with a decently tense climax that satiates some of our clamorings for a quality ending.

The film’s better assets are a few of the supporting cast members that help to add color to the procedural. We are treated to the typical menagerie of seedy characters including Ted de Corsia, Jack Lambert, and Zero Mostel. But the kingpin of them all is Everett Sloane. I can’t decide if it’s simply an uncharacteristic role for the actor or simply a poor bit of casting for the role of the boss of Murder Inc. But no matter, it is what it is.

There are also no femme fatales and very few female characters to speak of at all. For one moment, a woman is important: one Angela Vetto. Otherwise, it’s pretty bleak going. Even Bogart is not particularly interesting per se but he is still Bogart, making his scenes worth watching at the very least because he’s more than believable in any incarnation as a tough guy.

3/5 Stars

Manhattan Melodrama (1934)

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The stars are out for Manhattan Melodrama, at least three of the biggest from the 1930s, in Clark Gable, William Powell, and Myrna Loy. Except the latter two had yet to start their star-making run with director W.S. Van Dyke in The Thin Man until later in the year. This picture would prove to be a boost and a portent of good things to come.

The opening scene captures the bedlam during a fire aboard a riverboat with an alarmingly raw energy. One might even stoop to call it pure melodrama but to the film’s credit, it’s not faulty advertising since right from the beginning it goes for the jugular.

In fact, it continues to stack the tragic setpieces one on top of another. The next is a politically charged riot between capitalist and Soviet sympathizers. That brings with it yet another bitter tragedy already upon us in only a matter of minutes.

Because the aftermath of such events means many kids are left without parents (including Mickey Rooney’s character Blackie) and many parents are left without kids. One man resolves to fill in the hole in his heart. Of course, it doesn’t last for long when he is run over by a horsecart. Two boys are made orphans yet again.

So no time is wasted whatsoever suggesting that this is their story. The stage has been set. Our two divergent heroes head their separate ways while nevertheless remaining lifelong friends.

Blackie’s (Gable) adult life is really an outcropping of his childhood pursuits. Namely, gambling and getting other people’s money. He’s a smart character who has the police paid off and his slightly suspect establishment is running on all cylinders. But he’s hardly a bad fellow, mind you.

That’s what allows Jim (Powell) who has pursued a law degree to still be fast friends with his old chum. What they do for a living never impedes on the affection they have for one another. And for a long time that works fine. Blackie’s girl Eleanor (Loy) tries to coax him away from the life he leads — to something close to a marriage — but that was never quite him.

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One evening when she is supposed to hold onto Jim before Blackie gets there so they can all celebrate Jim’s ambitious rise, she finds herself taken with a man who is what Blackie can never be for her. She goes for Jim since he is the man who can make her a happy wife. Again, there’s no ill-will. Blackie only wants the best for his friends.

The ominous sounding tune “The Bad in Every Man” plays quite prominently in this film and many audience members will undoubtedly recognize it under a different name it would have later in life,   “Blue Moon.” For now, it’s a nightclub number that adds a palpable atmosphere to the world and especially our impression of the male protagonists.

Blackie proves to be so deeply invested that he does everything in his power to keep his friend on the path of the straight and narrow without any hindrance from a no-good degenerate like himself. He would never jeopardize Jim in his rise from district attorney to governor and so on. In fact, he would even take a hit for him. Because the film ends with Jim tossing Blackie on the funeral pyre. He’s gotten tough on crime and that means not backing down on murder raps — even involving a friend. Little does he know what Blackie has done for him. But his wife knows.

This is, of course, the picture that has the notoriety of being the last one John Dillinger viewed before being shot by Federal Agents outside the Biograph Theater in Chicago. He purportedly came out of hiding just to see Myrna Loy.

The picture itself begs the question if there was more to Dillinger. Did he have a troubled past or someone else on the other side of the train tracks who made good? More likely than anything else he was a little insignificant man and his violence was met with violence in an equal and opposite direction. His death helped sell tickets no doubt. It was probably even made into a couple of movies. But it couldn’t be a movie. Life never is.

In that sense, this film hardly seems authentic or real even when we juxtapose it with reality. It’s a nice thought, Clark Gable going off to the electric chair grinning — no good but at least a man of principle. If you want arguably a similar look with a slightly different outcome Angel With Dirty Faces (1938) provides it. John Dillinger never got around to seeing that picture though. For him, real life happened with real consequences. There was nothing idealized about it.

3.5/5 Stars