The Burglar (1957)

The Burglar is instantly established with a pleasing visual geography. In fact, this kind of pervasively engaging visual landscape is constantly being reinforced, and in his first feature, director Paul Wendkos shows off his perceptive eye. Though he was a workhorse in television, it does lead one to wonder how an industry can so easily canonize certain names and so easily forget others.

But let me take a moment to laud the talents of Dan Duryea. He is such a fantastic bulwark to build a film around. He’s never one to garner prestigious fare, but all the pictures he was allowed to anchor have a certain predetermined grittiness to them that makes them feel inherently watchable. By now he’s older and not as sturdy as he used to be. But that face and his demeanor are still very much the same.

Jayne Mansfield had yet to reach meteoric stardom when the film was first made, although it was re-released a couple years later to make a profit off her newfound celebrity. What a stark and thrilling contrast it is to her usual bombshell image in the likes of A Girl Can’t Help It and Rock Hunter. It feels reminiscent of Marilyn Monroe in Don’t Bother to Knock or maybe Niagara.

When glam girls are allowed to be something more than just a pretty face, it can be remarkable because we see them less and less as objects and more like human beings. Their emotions touch us, and they feel real with problems and issues in drab black and white as opposed to luscious shades of Technicolor.

The Burglar is conceived in such a depressing world. It opens with a Newsreel about Sister Sarah a pseudo-religious figure who lives lavishly thanks to the goodwill of some of her faithful benefactors. This subject in itself feels worthy of more dissection, but it’s really only an opener.

We realize of course this is all pertinent exposition. Nat Harbin (Duryea) and his cronies plan to get within the iron gates of her mansion and run off with as much as they can. However, they know they only have 15 minutes to pull the job while Sister Sarah watches her favorite news broadcast. That’s not much time barring any further complications…

It’s such a sweltering opening full of tension and real dramatic heat. Surely, the movie cannot maintain this kind of fervid criminal activity for the rest of the movie. Of course, it can’t and part of this is the function of the story.

They get the loot but now they must wait it out — we watch their nerves and relationships unravel around them — as the authorities begin their search. Except it feels less and less like your typical police procedural. It has more going for it — partially thanks to David Goodis’s script.

The pieces don’t all fit together seamlessly. They sort of bump up against one another and slide into place. It’s not always taut, cogent, or particularly pithy, but there’s an inbred existentialism and weariness dancing around the corners; it’s difficult to shake.

This melds quite well with the grungy, sweaty cinematography that feels suitable for the burgeoning TV market. At one time it can be both claustrophobic and artful in its construction of mise en scene. It’s the antithesis of decadence, but that doesn’t mean the frame isn’t packed with intriguing visual landscapes.

Martha Vickers also gets her second noteworthy femme fatale role a decade after The Big Sleep — too bad she couldn’t be bequeathed more of them. She had a knack, and it’s no different in The Burglar, although she doesn’t show up until well into the movie.

Simultaneously, the manhunt continues and Nat finds himself being tailed by a shadowy stalker who seems to have a far more private interest in what they are doing. If neither one of these threats comes to fruition, then the gang will probably end up imploding out of mutual distaste. Though they work together out of necessity, they also come to loathe each other’s guts, especially in such close proximity under constant duress.

Duryea is protective of Mansfield, but it’s more of an obligation than affection. He’s made a vow now buried in their past somewhere. He sends her off to Atlantic City for her own safety, but as the movie bowls over, he has no recourse to follow her there, regardless of the danger he brings in his wake.

Coney Island-like atmosphere provides a wonderful visual contradiction to play off the criminal elements that hold the impending tinge of noir-filled doom. It uses the shrieks and ghoulish attractions of a carnival show like many of its great noir predecessors — Brighton Rock, Lady of Shanghai, Woman on the Run, and Stranger on The Train all spring to mind. It certainly deserves at least a mention in this company.

Duryea and Mansfield make full use of the place going from the boardwalk to a house of horrors to a water show, and as the benches clear out and they’re left alone in the cavernous space, it signs the end of the story with one fatalistic final act. Of course, it feels like a foregone conclusion. These pictures rarely end another way. The inevitable catches up with them.

But what I will remember indelibly are some of the individual shots. The Burglar has some of the most epic perspective shots I can recall in recent memory. They punctuate the film like many of the close-ups, and we are left with something so resolutely impactful. It feels like a flawed diamond in the rough. It’s the kind of unwonted gem you won’t soon forget even as the blemishes slowly fade away.

3.5/5 Stars

The Sound of Fury – Try and Get Me (1950)

The Sound of Fury opens with a kind of portent. A demonstrative street preacher yells out at the pedestrians walking by to “Prepare to meet thy God and Repent of their sins.” He pretty much gets trampled with all his pamphlets ending up on the ground in a sea of humanity. It’s really not all that important why it happens, but it does show the indifference and the frenzy that so easily overtakes the masses.

Howard Tyler (Frank Lovejoy) is a man down on his luck with a wife and son to provide for and no job. Life has hit the skids. At home, his demure wife (Kathleen Ryan) pleads with him to find work because every day she’s begging for groceries, and trying to make ends meet. With her pregnancy and a little boy always asking his Pop for stuff, it’s enough to make a guy despondent. He feels totally useless.

It’s in moments like these where honest living seems to give you zilch, only heartbreak, and it’s easy enough for decent men to get enticed by evil. It starts innocently enough, and it’s all for the sake of a buck as Tyler gets seduced by the sirens of noir.

I use this metaphorically because what really does it is a meeting in a bowling alley. He goes there to drown his sorrows. Instead, he meets a confident man finishing up a frame named Jerry Slocum. Slocum’s swimming in dough with fine threads and not a care in the world. Howard looks at his life with envy.

Years before Michael Jackson, Lloyd Bridges proves himself to be a smooth criminal. You probably already can see where this is going without it being spelled out. However, in order to make it explicit, Howard signs on as a getaway driver. He keeps the motor running as Jerry cleans out the cashboxes of local gas stations.

Suddenly, they’re both implicated in a life of crime. At this point, there is no salvaging their lives, as they submerge deeper and deeper. They go so far as to kidnap the son of an influential man. This is far bigger than Howard ever dared to imagine, but he cannot get out — not now.

The Sound of Fury looks to integrate a few more characters. Initially, we don’t know how they fit exactly. It’s a dinner party. A man and his wife. They have a house guest and then his editor (Art Smith) from the newspaper drops by. He’s trying to get his top columnist to look into some local robberies. They hold a discourse on the destruction of public health, sensationalism, and social responsibility of the press. It all feels a bit didactic if altogether well-meaning. It also has no power to save Howard.

The kidnappers send out a ransom note and wait. For Jerry, he plays it cool. It comes naturally as he reunites with his best girl (Adele Jergens), an opportunistic blonde who has dreams of leaving her crummy life behind for the exoticism of Havana. She doesn’t care how Jerry bankrolls it; she’s just impressed that he can. They’re like fire and ice constantly scorching each other and making up just as ferociously.

Lovejoy is coupled up with the other girl (Katherine Locke) in the back seat. If not for the fact that he’s already married, they might be a decent match because they both have a similar propriety and quiet humility. Alas, it can never be. Not only because of his family life but they’re also embroiled in a crime that cannot be easily brushed off. There’s no turning back.

When they pull up to a club with the girls it’s almost like watching a film through funhouse mirrors or something with contorted angles distorting the floorshow and all the gaiety on the floor. It’s totally unnerving. This is just the beginning as Lovejoy’s character falls to pieces. He’s not made for this life of duplicity. It unhinges him as he implicates himself and the film begins to run on this wild energy that will see it through to the end.

It’s the final moments of the film where it stakes its entire reputation as we face an onslaught on so many fronts: visual, emotional, and psychological. We watch the masses descend on the courthouse to gawk, condemn and belittle the criminals after they are brought in. There is no quelling the tide of the momentum and from thenceforward the movie gets carried away by the mob.

Evoking the same ardent energy of Fritz Lang’s Fury (adapted from the same source material), it’s a bit like a modern storming of the bastille. The culprits fly through the jail like apes and howling banshees, and the feeble attempts by the police to maintain any semblance of law and order are quickly snuffed out.

Many generations later, The Sound of Fury feels like one of the most obvious pleas against the swells of McCarthyism in the company of more notable indictments like High Noon or even Invasion of the Body-Snatchers. It’s not merely about the narrative speaking volumes, but the resulting effect on many of its cast members. Cy Enfield was soon forced to flee to England, and he would finish the rest of his career abroad.

The great character actor Art Smith — memorable in everything from Ride the Pink Horse to In a Lonely Place would watch a reliable career go down the tubes. Lloyd Bridges was also affected although he was able to find some relief by cooperating with HUAC. So while they weren’t lynched, it was men like these who were given a damning choice.

They could name names or hold fast and commit career suicide, receiving all the ignominy that came with such a choice. Neither could they stop the tide of fury leading to blacklisting and self-exile, and worst still, they probably more than saw the writing on the wall. There’s nothing more terrifying. You see the malevolent forces at work, and you’re powerless to do anything about them.

The parallels between the movie and real life hardly point-for-point between two killers and accused communist sympathizers. What’s relevant is the wide-ranging reaction top-to-bottom, be it fear or this kind of embittered, hate-filled retribution. Suddenly there is no place for civil discourse. Emotions, which are not inherently bad, begin to boil over and dominate the social spheres.

I’m not an authority on the Red Scare or McCarthyism, nor did I ever experience the full brunt of the Cold War, but even as the issues change and the times with them, at our core, human nature always seems to adhere to the same patterns. True, we are predisposed toward avarice and turpitude, but even our battle cries for justice fall far short.

The fact that the movie was released under two titles and never truly caught on or that Enfield is not more of a household name feels like a cruel sign of the times. Watching it now, from its opening images of a fire and brimstone street preacher to the devastating final acts of violence, it’s sure to rattle the cage. Hopefully, now, we’re better able to appreciate it, and heed its warnings on the state of humanity.

3.5/5 Stars

Confidentially Yours (1983)

This is my Entry in the Classic Movie Blog Association’s Fall Blogathon Movies are Murder!

Although no one knew it at the time, Confidentially Yours would become the makeshift curtain call to Francois Truffaut’s career as he died of a brain tumor shortly thereafter. The movie in no way makes up for the works we lost out on, but there are some fitting summations worth appreciating. Truffaut cast his latest muse, Fanny Ardant, in the lead role — subverting the prototypical blonde Hitchocockian heroine.

Like her predecessors, Ardant is winsome and brave, whether in stage garb or a trenchcoat in the tradition of noir working girls like Ella Raines or even Grace Kelly. They’re capable of being both intrepid and alluring on screen as the dauntless motor behind the story.

It’s true the film’s plot, execution, and sense of style owe a debt of gratitude to Truffaut’s cinematic hero. Like Alfred Hitchcock’s film Stage Fright, Confidentially Yours covers murder and the performative aspects surrounding it.

There’s a kind of duality because Ardant is not only a secretary embroiled in a local murder, but also moonlights as a stage performer at night even as she dons various parts throughout the movie to aid in her detective work. Much of this fades away as mere pretense as we get deeper and deeper into the nitty-gritty world of old-fashioned noir.

Confidentially Yours boasts a brisk beginning befitting a more contemporary film: A man is brutally shot out at a pond, and there’s only one obvious suspect. Truffaut implicates his own star through the cut because the first image we see after a bloody murder by a faceless perpetrator is Jean-Louis Trinitnant walking back to his car. He sees a nearby car door left ajar, and he closes it before returning to his own vehicle and driving off. When the police come to question him later, he seems to slip up in his story.

Surely he’s a guilty party. He has motive. His wife was unfaithful, and now one of her many boyfriends is dead. What’s more, Trintignant plays him as a brusque character — he’s not winning any awards for likeability — and yet these are not the metrics for guilt and innocence as we’re probably already all aware of. To use a staid figure of speech, people are often more than meets the eye.

Also, there’s the question about fingerprints. He left them all over the crime scene. Either he’s an incalculable fool or there’s more to the story. Ardant occupies an unenviable position. She seems to be working for a guilty party, she’s given the ax by her embittered employer, and yet she still finds some compulsion to begin poking around.

She starts sleuthing, coming into contact with a melange of lawyers, policemen, and shadowy undesirables. It’s easy to get bogged down by what feels like an incomprehensible cascade of plotting, but isn’t this the point? It’s not the particulars but the means of getting there proving the most important, and Ardent is one of the most supernal vessels we could possibly imagine. Somehow she seems like the predecessor of Hayley Atwood with the poise of Isabella Rossellini thrown in for good measure.

One of the film’s other lasting assets is the gorgeous monochromatic tones of Nestor Almendros. It proves to be an immaculate act of mimesis plucking the movie out of the ’80s and allowing it to drift into that timeless era of yesteryear that only lives in the thoughts and recollections of our elders who experienced the world and dreamed in black and white.

As her employer stays mostly anonymous behind his shuttered-up storefront, Ardant becomes his hands and feet, searching out a ticket taker at a movie house, and then leading to a nightclub. Later, she looks to infiltrate a prostitution ring using all her wiles to spy out the window of the lavatory. Eventually, her tenacity is rewarded, and she does what the police seem incapable of through normal channels.

Truffaut for me will always be one of the most ardent cinephiles with the likes of Martin Scorsese and a handful of others. Men who often made fantastic, exhilarating films, but not out of a debt to mere craftsmanship or technique. It’s so palpable how much they love these things. Their films can’t help but smolder with a boyish fanaticism they were never quite able to shake.

Scorsese still seems to make a young man’s movies with an old man’s themes, and even though we lost Truffaut at 53, hardly in the autumn of his life, he had some of the same proclivities. He loves the genre conventions of old. There’s almost a giddy enthusiasm to do his own Hitchcock movies like Shoot The Piano Player, Mississippi Mermaid, The Bride Wore Black or even this final entry.

And yet on the other end of the spectrum with the likes of Antoine Doinel, The Wild Child, and Pocket Money, he managed to tap into these deep reservoirs of emotional soulfulness. It feels as if adolescence is incarnated and imbued with empathy by someone who never quite left that life behind.

Since Godard still manages to have an influence on cinema culture as one of the revered old guard throughout this century, it remains a shame we lost Truffaut so prematurely. He still lives on through his films and the admiration of others like Steven Spielberg, but I do feel like if he was still alive today, his love of the movies would be equally infectious if not more so. I suppose it makes the catalog he left behind all the more important.

I didn’t consider until this very moment, but with “confidentially yours” the director is leaving us with his final valediction before signing off. It seems fitting his complementary farewell drips with the pulp sentiments he relished starring a lady whom he loved.

4/5 Stars

Note: This review was originally written before the passing of Jean-Luc Godard on September 13, 2022.

He Walked By Night (1948)

He Walked by Night is akin to T-Men or Border Incident in its pervasive use of “Voice of God” narration. Today, all of this feels blase and staid like newsreel footage without much substance. Over time, the voice feels a bit like a pesky mosquito not so much in tone or frequency but simply in his tendencies. He won’t leave us in peace. What he is worth are a few minutes of civic history circa 1948 for those invested in knowing something about the distant past.

The real juicy bits are when noir seeps into the equation. To set the scene, there’s a cop returning home from his beat late at night; he sees a mysterious-looking figure loitering around a shop. He confronts the passerby, and the fugitive opens fire.

Quickly, the wheels of justice are notified on the switchboard, and the police force is mobilized to track down the fugitive who vanishes into the dead of night. Like any of these sorts of police procedurals, most of our “heroes” are innocuous types with a chiseled jaw and voices made for straightforward “just the facts” television — Scott Brady and Jack Webb among them.

In fact, Webb would use the experience of this movie to bring a little program called Dragnet to the radio waves. It would take on a life of its own with two subsequent runs on the newly minted medium of television. He Walked By Night is of the same ilk.

Very few of the characters impose any sort of will or inventiveness on the story. It’s strictly by the book with John Alton putting everyone else to task. Boy oh boy could he shoot a gorgeous movie; it shows in every frame.

There is one challenger to Alton’s preeminence because Richard Basehart’s performance stands out, and it’s the most visible and elegant opportunity at something memorable. Everyone else is an average Joe or a victim. He actually gets to do something and embody an enigmatic character with multiple layers and compulsions. Set off by his matinee idol good looks and tentative demeanor, he erupts with wrath creating an indelible impression.

If there’s any downside, it’s only a minor qualm he probably had little control over. There’s never an appreciation or at least an understanding of the killer. In 1948 the movies weren’t ready for that, but it’s part of what makes the movie feel rather sterile. It’s all about the case, which while somewhat contentious, plays out in conventional parlance. The exhibition in style more than makes it worthwhile, but He Walked by Night feels fairly paltry in narrative terms.

It’s true that the real events have a tinge of cinematic drama and in the post-war years, these kinds of hard-fact docudramas were in vogue. But with this being based on a real killer and genuine terror, the creators cannot sketch too much in any way that makes the audience too uncomfortable.

Again, where it deviates or rather executes to the most sublime is through the photography of Alton. It punctuates and accentuates the story in ways that are irreducible. You simply have to marvel and people have done so for generations. If you want a solid representation of film noir, this is it, hook, line, and sinker.

Take a scene midway through the movie where the cops have gotten in touch with a shop owner (Whit Bissell). He unwittingly did ongoing business with the wanted man — not knowing the evasive Roy was actually a violent kleptomaniac. In fact, Roy returns to the electronic dealer’s office wary of a trap.

It’s here where Alton finally gets another chance to spring into action, exerting himself on the movie and forever changing its course. The shadowed interiors bisecting Basehart’s face as he slinks back into the darkness are positively sumptuous. The sound design proves equally striking; we don’t hear any scoring, not one foot hitting the ground. It gives it this almost illusory quality. These are phantoms at work.

When they put out his description, and he’s forced on the lam, it’s the next progression in the picture’s glorious dragnet of immersive chiaroscuro. Basehart makes a daring escape on the rooftops with a getaway set up for just such an occasion. Then, he escapes into the catacombs of the city evolving into a full-fledged storm drain noir. I’m accustomed to the waterways of Vienna as opposed to the sewers of L.A. They play just as well in what becomes a defining moment of the film.

Pounding feet and flashlight beams spell impending doom as they encroach on the fugitive’s position. It relies even more on the juxtaposition of light like a knife in the dark. I know my own timeline is not chronological, but if I had never seen The Third Man, He Walked by Night’s finale would feel even more novel and like a truly slam-bang finish. It accomplishes so much through visual tension and delivering on the manhunt that has been going on throughout the entire movie. There really is no better way they could have gone about it.

Until the very end, He Walked by Night is a performative war between the by-the-book sense of realism that feels like post-war convention, and then the manic, slightly repressed expression that burst forth only after hours. It’s no contest and this bodes well for this ’40s crime procedural.

3/5 Stars

Desperate (1947)

It’s easy to imagine Steve Randall (Steve Brodie) has the life of many men circa 1947. He’s a war vet, and he makes an honest wage as a truck driver. Brodie and the effervescent Audrey Long are stars befitting the budget of the film, but I rather like them for it. There’s nothing prepossessing about them, and we appreciate them for their sheer likability; they’re humble, honest folks.

From the first instance they’re in a room together, they also prove themselves to be an adorably in-love couple, between flowers, anniversary cakes, and news of a baby on the way. It certainly is an auspicious beginning, and yet it’s all so wholesome; it feels like an instant tip-off that this picture is going to hell very fast. It proves to be the case.

Because Steve gets a call to carry a special load of goods. He doesn’t think anything of it, and he could use the extra dough on his salary. Only too late does he realize his old friend is asking him to haul stolen merchandise. This wasn’t what he signed up for, but they don’t care.

Raymond Burr fortuitously has a reputation for playing the pertinacious district attorney Perry Mason because without that there’s little doubt he would be forever immortalized as one of the most vicious baddies ever conceived in the age of noir. There’s something between his piercing eyes, the command of his voice, and his formidable frame that just leave an instant impression. He knows how to use them to his full advantage in the role of Walt Radak, a merciless criminal who also has a protective streak when it comes to his kid brother.

This is crucial because, in the botched burglary, it’s his brother who is taken by the authorities; the other thugs are frazzled but get away, and all of a sudden Steve is in a load of quicksand sinking fast.

Arguably, the creative apex of the film — or at least its fundamental allure — is suggested in a low-lit sequence in the gangster lair. Steve is cornered and Walt is ready to rough him up, literally knuckling the camera. Moments later, the man’s face is disfigured by a jagged bottle, and he’s pounded to a pulp under a swinging light fixture. We don’t see it explicitly, but the scene is so violently expressive; it’s all the more evocative thanks to this very specific stylization. It’s noir at its finest courtesy of Anthony Mann.

Although maimed, Steve does get away, and he whisks Anne out of town, disregarding her pleas for him to go to the police. He’s scared, worried for his wife’s safety, and he wants to vindicate himself before going to the authorities. What it means is that both Walt and a wry police detective named Ferrari (Jason Robards Sr.) are looking for him, and only time will tell what happens when one of them finds him.

They trade out the urban apartments, trains, and trucks for rural farm life, which becomes a kind of escape valve accentuated even visually. It’s the film’s moment of reprieve as they are immersed in Anne’s doting family who agree to throw her a true Czechoslovakian country wedding — what they never had time for before — and they dance the day away.

The ending is already inevitable. Walt’s slimy private dick (Douglas Fawley) is able to locate Steve, and the vindictive mobster comes ready to pay the fugitive a call. With his baby brother’s impending appointment with the electrical chair, he’s bent on having Steve knocked off at the exact same hour. He might not be able to save his brother, but he can get some semblance of revenge. It’s an eye for an eye mentality with noirish stakes.

When they’re finally thrown together in Steve’s apartment, Mann’s not messing around, and the film’s climax delivers both in its theatrics and as an extraordinary exercise in substantive style. Between the music, the smoke, and the nervous rat-tat-tatting creating the cadence of scenes, he goes into those fabulous claustrophobic close-ups of all his main players and the ticking clock smashed together as one. They create an excruciating effect because we know when the time runs out so does Steve’s life.

Mann milks the moment for everything it’s worth and his handling of time is so very effective. There’s not an ounce of realism in the scene. Maybe we have a dining room table, a kitchen, a fridge, but everything else is fabricated and manipulated to ratchet up the tension of the moment. The results speak for themselves.

The final shootout on the stairwell of the apartment building is yet another feat of ingenuity using everything at his disposal from the visual motif to the shadows, even frightened neighbors opening their doors momentarily only to slam them again.  It all culminates in the final crescendo and the ultimate release of anxiety.

It’s easy to see Anthony Mann coming into his own and what a stunning creative force he was. Desperate doesn’t garner too many laurels today, but it capably highlights what makes Mann such a popular journeyman filmmaker. There’s so much grit and tenacity stamped into the very fabric of his genre pieces, whether film noir or his later westerns with Jimmy Stewart. There’s nothing lifelike about them, and yet he magnifies the tension so much so that they function as such a blistering exploration of crime and vindictive human psychology.

3.5/5 Stars

4 Film Noirs for National Classic Movie Day

I would love to get more well-versed in international film noir, and I already have a handful of films on my watchlist once I can get a hold of them. However, being a lover of classic American noir, I wanted to try to dig a little deeper for some recommendations.

Following are four films that I watched over the last few years. They all resonated with me while also exemplifying why film noir remains my favorite style/movement/genre, or whatever you wish to call it. Hopefully, you find them enjoyable!

Happy Classic Movie Day to all and thanks again to the Classic Film and TV Cafe for having us!

The Locket (1946):

This might be the highest-profile film on my list. John Brahm had a noir pedigree worth adulation thanks to period delights like The Lodger and Hangover Square starring Laird Cregar. Although it’s brought into the modern arena, The Locket is little different in terms of thrills giving Laraine Day the most psychologically destructive performance of her career.

Her ebullient femme fatale with a fit of kleptomania effectively upturns the life of every man in her path with an unknowing banefulness. An up-and-coming Robert Mitchum gets tossed out of the picture unceremoniously in an uncharacteristic end while Brian Aherne’s good doctor also falls under her charms most unwittingly.

What’s so delicious about the film is how it leads with this veneer of a drawing-room comedy or a chipper rom-com only to take an unremitting dive into the dark pool of noir psychology as it slices through her shadowy past. True to form, Day leaves a path of destruction in her wake all while maintaining a perfectly scintillating smile over a fractured psyche.

The Well (1951)

Russell Rouse was a recent discovery for me and The Well felt like a quiet revelation of a film. It seems to fit the mold of 50s noir as the era breeds a greater attempt at post-war realism and a concern for the social issues at hand. The Well is one of the few films of the era to court a fairly groundbreaking dialogue on racial unrest and what’s more, it also showcases some fine performances.

When a little girl is lost in the titular well, it triggers the concerns of her parents. Her father is played by Ernest Anderson, who had a groundbreaking role in Bette Davis’s This is Our Life, although he rarely garnered much attention after that. It shows the dearth of space allocated in the industry for talented black actors. The Well feels like some small recompense.

Harry Morgan (a childhood favorite from MASH) also plays a crucial role as a man suspected in the girl’s disappearance. The movie’s core tension feels profoundly relevant over 70 years later, but the miraculous thing is how a powder keg of a noir becomes the foundation for solidarity. It evolves into an anti-Ace in The Hole — more balm than inflammatory indictment.

Crashout (1955)

If you want to survey a plethora of film noir’s finest malcontents, you only have to look over the cast of Crashout. The picture stars Arthur Kennedy and William Bendix with support from William Talman, Gene Evans, Luther Adler, and Marshall Thompson. Each is an escaped convict, and we watch their harrowing path, not simply breaking out of prison (that happens over the credits), but subsequently as they decide how to proceed.

They bide their time in a cave, resolve to recover a load of stolen money, and make their way out in the open as wanted fugitives. Any civilian who comes in contact with them is thrown into immediate danger, and yet it feels like a rather prescient picture because it puts us into the camp of the men who are normally framed as the antagonists.

There’s in-fighting and they have time to fall in love. Beverly Michaels turns up as a pretty hostage who they seek asylum with (It’s the complete antithesis of her image in Wicked Woman). But I was surprised by how merciless and unflinching the movie was for the 1950s. It caught me off guard on multiple occasions, and it feels like a truly unsung prison break noir.

The Burglar (1957)

As one of film noir’s preeminent cronies, it’s always a pleasure to watch Dan Duryea get more time in the limelight front and center. He did star in a bevy of minor classics in the dark genre like Black Angel, The Underworld Story, and Chicago Calling. The Burglar should be added to this list. He’s the leader of a pack of criminals who execute a tense heist on the vault of an opulent mansion in the dead of night. Nothing goes wrong per se, but much of the pervading drama comes with waiting out the aftermath.

There’s something always arresting and off-kilter about the visual geography of the film as conceived by director Paul Wendkos. It feels both grungy and deeply atmospheric with a myriad of human contours leading us all the way to the rickety boardwalks of Atlantic City.

Duryea is a fine protagonist joined by a fairly unadorned Jayne Mansfield still on the precipice of her success as a Hollywood bombshell. However, for noir enthusiasts, one of the most fascinating inclusions might be Martha Vickers playing a cultured more mature femme fatale a decade after The Big Sleep. Since the majority of her work in the 40s feels mostly innocuous, it was a welcomed discovery to see a return to form for her in a sense.

Honorable Mentions: Night Editor, Desperate, 711 Ocean Dr., Wicked Woman, Shield for Murder, The Crimson Kimono

Note: A previous version incorrectly mentioned the boardwalk of Coney Island, not Atlantic City, so I updated it. 

I Shot Jesse James (1949): A Sam Fuller Western

i shot jesse james

I Shot Jesse James is an off-center western as only Sam Fuller could possibly conceive it. At the very least it brings a journalistic eye and a shift in perspective. Because distilled down to its most basic elements, it’s a psychological character piece with John Ireland at the heart of it as Robert Ford: the man who shot Jesse James.

It’s not quite as punchy as Sammy Fuller would establish himself to be, but there is a slew of compelling ideas, and it’s not as straightforward as the western genre often suggests itself to be. Sure, the opening scene feels like quintessential Fuller, prepared to rap us over the head with the brunt of his movie. Bank robberies can never be easy; they’re always contentious. Guns drawn and bank tellers intent on sounding the alarm.

The picture is also about as noirish as they come out on the range — part of this is indebted to the conflicted character psychology — as expectations fluctuate wildly and scenarios happen not as we expect, but as they are meant to in a dismal landscape where everything comes out to its pessimistic worst.

People are poison to one another. The cruel hand of fate is inevitable. The lynchpin moment where a frankly, conventional Jesse James (Reed Hadley) is gunned down by his best friend is hardly imbued with the mythical glory the tabloids would have you believe. It’s almost matter-of-fact, totally unsentimental.

Fuller’s script acts as an examination of mythos and the pariah-like celebrity that engulfs the man. It makes for a far more perplexing exploration when you consider Jesse James died a hero — a Robin Hoodesque legend — while Ford is totally disgraced in society. He shot his best friend. If not for money, at least for a girl.

His desires are normal. He wants to get a ring so he can marry her and settle down. The question remains whether this kind of humdrum life is available to someone in his station.

The thematic ideas of legends on the range are dissected in many other westerns, and there’s always a sense of notoriety catching up with a protagonist. He has a target on his back. They might not have modern technology but papers, telegraph, and word of mouth have more pull than we might imagine. Word gets around and, if anything, legends grow larger with every town dispelling their own half-truths about the man and the myth.

Every gunshot potentially has Ford’s name on it. And yet he doesn’t want to give up his name. He’s too proud for that. He does take to the stage circuit reenacting how he shot Jesse James, and yet he can’t bring himself to pull the trigger. The audiences watch with a kind of morbid curiosity. It’s another nail in the coffin. Surely they comprehend this is simply one pitiful man shooting another — not some gargantuan duel of ruinous proportions.

In an equally telling interlude, Ford offers to trade a drink for a troubadour’s ballad and gets an ode to the coward Robert Ford who laid Jesse James in his grave sung back in his face. You can imagine his chagrin when he finds out he’s been memorialized in such a manner and then the jovial performer’s surprise when he learns he’s singing to the craven legend himself.

i shot jesse james

In a flat western, Barbara Britton’s part would be tepid. Here she gets at least two moments in close-up where her face comes alive with a crazed expression you don’t soon forget. It’s fit for a femme fatale, but she’s not evil or psychotic. At worst, she’s torn apart by love, and it’s a force she can’t cope with.

If Ford is still madly in love with her, there’s another character who drifts through and vies for her affections. Whether real or imagined, it doesn’t really matter. Ford has it in his head that the genial prospector, John Kelley (Preston Foster), is his bitter rival.

As mankind follows the trail of prospective wealth, both Ford and Kelley wind up in Colorado in the midst of a silver boon. For the time being, Cynthy is out of the picture. Far from fighting, they share a room, right neighborly.

The final act doesn’t feel much like a western at all. It’s shed all the traditions long ago. Again, it is a character piece. It could be any genre. This one just happens to be set around saloons and hotels, mining towns, and grubstakes.

But there are two men and one woman, and she can only end up with one of them. Perhaps she only actually really loves one of them. Frank James comes back into the story — you might remember him too — but he’s only another mechanism, like Wanted Dead or Alive posters or climactic showdowns between good and evil. Here they always carry the persistent inevitably we attribute to noir. There can only be one conclusion…

To the very last iota, it feels like textbook Fuller as he announces himself on the cinema landscape. On top of writing and directing the picture, he purportedly shot it over 10 days on rented sets from Republic Pictures. What’s most extraordinary is how the movie hardly seems to suffer from these constraints. If anything, it set a template for how Fuller would maintain a degree of creative autonomy while still managing to create a wide array of compelling projects in years to come.

Although his visual style would continue to grow and sharpen, there’s a killer instinct proving a lightning rod for stories. As a journalist and a journeyman, there’s this sense Fuller had the “don’t get it right, get it written” mentality. However, this very rarely seems to harm his output, which somehow always manages to find a worthwhile point of view to grab hold of.

I Shot Jesse James is little different. Its inadequacies often wind up making it all the more intriguing. You’ve never seen Jesse James spun in this manner, and way back in 1949 Fuller had a kind of prescience in suggesting where the West would go after the 1950s.

3.5/5 Stars

I Walk Alone (1948) with Lancaster and Douglas

i walk alone

“All the songs sound alike these days.”

The title of this movie inadvertently made me think of the Dinah Shore number “I’ll Walk Alone.” Granted, the title is slightly different, and it was birthed out of the WWII context where soldiers left their sweethearts behind to wait it out.

I Walk Alone could have easily made a play for this type of story. Instead, it replaces traumatic military experience with a long stint in prison and so our protagonist comes back to the outside world with a slightly different mentality. So there’s really no connection out all, and yet somehow music holds a crucial place in this movie because it comes to represent something about the characters. We hear, among other standards “Isn’t It Romantic?” and “Heart and Soul.”

Each of these classics plays as odd counter music to an otherwise rough and tumble story that might yield descriptions ripe with gangsters and noir imagery. When Dave meets Frankie at the train station, we understand the score instantly: 14 years behind bars and now he’s on the outside. Lancaster and Corey are holdovers from the previous year’s Desert Fury (along with Lizabeth Scott).

Ill-will has built up over the same period because back in the days of prohibition, Dave (Lancaster) used to be in cahoots as a rum runner with Noll “Dink” Turner (Kirk Douglas), who has now made a name for himself on the outside. After taking the rap, Dave feels slighted by his old partner, and true to form, his partner is trying to feel him out so he might know how to counteract him. It’s an instant conflict.

Coincidentally, it’s the first crossing of the dynamic wills belonging to Lancaster and Douglas who would continue a storied cinematic partnership over seven pictures. Even at this early date, they have fire in their bellies to drive their dramatic inclinations.

Having the two of them together is a singular delight in a way Desert Fury from the previous year could never deliver. Because in a sense they are on equal footing in terms of cinematic clout and charisma. Not that they’re the same person by any means, but it’s rather like Mitchum and Douglas sparring in Out of The Past. It makes for a far more absorbing picture.

Before he won the privilege to be an irascible hero, Douglas excels at being the cool and calculating criminal type. His voice is almost high-pitched and strung tight giving him an unnerving quality with pointed fury behind his eyes — as dark as ever. Still, he gladly maintains the pretense of friendship; it’s good for business.

When Frankie makes his way to the Regent club, he sees all the old crowd is still around, Dan the hulking doorman, then Ben behind the bar. It’s a bit like old times, but times have changed.

The veiled threats in their first meeting are an extraordinary barrage from the opening warning “Don’t move,” to the insinuations about his health on the outside, and the final flash of flame from a cigarette lighter. Intensions are made very clear.

True to form, Dink uses every resource at his advantage to defuse and exploit his old friend if possible. He’s the consummate businessman even when it comes to women. Lisabeth Scott, the club’s resident torch singer, is a whole-hearted sentimentalist who believes in love and in people — the fact they just don’t make songs like they used to. In this regard, she shares a conviction with Frankie. But she’s supposed to be Dink’s girl; at least she works for him.

However, there’s also Alexis Richardson (Kristine Miller) a refined beauty with a name “spelled in capital letters” and a cigarette pinched between her feminine fingers. She’s also filthy rich and she doesn’t mind her men philandering; for her romance is as much a business transaction as it is for Dink.

The script has its moments of lively snappiness especially leaving the lips of Lancaster who exerts himself as the brusque, no-nonsense tough operator. He’s not about to let other’s knock him off balance or get too far into his confidences.

However, I Walk Alone charts the changes that went into organized crime while Frankie was in the slammer. Whereas he represents the brawn of the old days, Dink is an emblem of the wily business practices necessary to get ahead currently. He’s able to cast off his old partner’s stake in the company with a convenient signature on a piece of paper.

What has developed is an age where big business steamrolled the olden days of hoods and backstreet gangsters calling the shots. Where three corporations can only be understood and operated through board meetings, diagrams, and dizzying bureaucracy. This web feels like a conspiracy to Frankie while only reiterating the helplessness found in a story like The Grapes of Wrath where modernity has overwhelmed the old ways.

He piles into his old buddy’s office with a posse of thugs including the smart-mouthed Skinner (Mickey Knox), the heavy Tiger (Freddie Steele), and the ubiquitous Dewey Robinson. What he realizes only too late is it’s not a matter of bringing knives to a gunfight. They are mostly outdated tokens just like him. As the brassy one quips he’s “swimming in it.”

What happens next is not unforeseen. There’s a manhunt and the man finds himself a woman who brims with his same spirit; someone who stands by the standards and sentiments of the past. To coin a paradox, they can walk alone together.

Beginning to end, what truly holds I Walk Alone together is the slimy impudence of Kirk Douglas struggling for dominance over Lancaster’s inherent tenacity. Without them, and then everyone else, including Scott, ably orbiting around them, it feels like the story might fall apart. Still, film noir aficionados should have more than enough to gorge themselves on.

3.5/5 Stars

The Threat (1949): Starring Charles McGraw

ThreatPoster.jpgThe beauty of a picture like this comes with the efficiency of the drama with a prison breakout occurring under the opening credits. Soon we learn a notorious, shadowy criminal named Kluger has broken out of Folsom prison.

The convict once vowed to kill both the detective and district attorney who worked to put him away and he doesn’t take the threat lightly. He means to carry it out.

When he finally does show his face, Charles McGraw, makes an indelible entrance almost bursting the seams of such a lowly movie. He’s so imperative to the movie’s meager claim at success destining him for thug greatness for all posterity (and a few hardboiled heroic turns once he’d paid his dues).

Felix Feist’s latest thriller is at its best putting forth its claustrophobic kidnapping scenario strung out with tension and genuine terror. Our so-called heroes are a fairly drab bunch including a career cop and family man, Ray Williams (Michael O’Shea).

In contrast, McGraw maintains the film’s gruff core more than willing to throw his weight around as he plans the rest of his getaway and subsequent revenge. To the movie’s credit, he’s liable to do anything he deems advantageous to his plans, doling out orders to his cronies, and forcibly throwing around anyone he wants. He doesn’t care about others. They’re disposable goods.

It starts with the old moll (Virginia Grey) he thinks has double-crossed him, then his two old adversaries, and finally the unwitting delivery truck driver who proves integral to his proposed plan to weasel his way past the police dragnet and network of roadblocks.

However, the tension is borne in the intervals in-between where they must wait around. First, at a house and then out at an old shack in the desert, until their buddy, Tony, drops in with his plane. Both sides are hanging on edge, either for fear of being killed or the threat of being captured.

There’s one shot, in particular, slyly setting up the dynamics of the film’s finale to come as the camera peers down into the shack they’re holding up in. With time running out, our drama must escalate. Red coaxes the gun away from one stir-crazy housemate just to turn around and use it in the next. There’s no prevailing mercy or level of sentiment, whether it’s a man or woman. It’s this continual unpredictability making for a sweaty, nasty little climax.

The plot’s breakthrough revolves around a long shot — a nice bit of circumstance — and it is by any stretch of the imagination.  I’m not sure if the logic exactly checks out, narratively speaking, though it’s easy enough to turn a blind eye for the sake of the action. You don’t necessarily seek out The Threat to feed your desire for taut scripting.

My only real qualm is how this film ends like so many others I’m seen recently where a happy ending is only obtained through a wife’s pregnancy. It is a bit of shorthand to say something about the American Dream circa the 1940s and 50s — and new life is such a precious thing — but it seems like such a tiresome trope when it’s used as a crutch so often.

Up to this point, The Threat genuinely lives up to its title mostly in part to Charles McGraw. If you’re a fan of the minor film noir icon, it’s a must-see. Otherwise, it’s best to look elsewhere for diversions of a higher caliber.

3/5 Stars

I Love Trouble (1948): Enter Roy Huggins

800px-I_Love_Trouble_(1948)_1.jpg

In the days before they were known as film noir, the melodramas of the 1940s have such evocative titles, which now verge on the edge of camp. One can imagine the plethora of quality bumper stickers noir aficionados could plaster on their jalopies and Cadillacs. Try these on for size: Kiss Me Deadly, Murder My Sweet, Touch of Evil, In a Lonely Place. You get the idea.

I’ve become so conditioned to hearing them — to referencing the actors and directors within their frames — sometimes it’s easy to forget how strange they sound. Well, you might as well add I Love Trouble to the bunch. Of course, it means absolutely nothing, but that’s the point isn’t it, stirring something volatile up within the viewer. It suggests a vivid mental picture and this is somehow equally important.

I Love Trouble is generally forgotten today, as is its director-producer, S. Sylvan Simon, and yet the movie is a swirling labyrinth capable of going toe to toe with anything Marlowe ever faced. The dividing line between tautness and plot holes or logic and absurdity almost ceases to have credence. If this will fluster you as a viewer — enrage your logical sensibilities — it’s best to look somewhere else for your two-bit entertainment.

The true pleasures come with getting swept up in the world with all its additions and misdirects courtesy of a neverending conveyor belt of characters riffing off snappy bits of repartee. It fills in fairly nicely between the confrontations and beatings, smoothing over any major issues.

The opening is simple. A man is trailing a woman and she confronts him. It turns out he’s a private eye in the service of one Ralph Johnston (Tom Powers), looking for the other man’s missing wife. So it’s a bit of a Vertigo set-up, except the woman he’s already confronted wasn’t her. Well, it was, but it might as well be somebody else. Because she altogether vanishes from the film.

What follows is as expected. Stuart Bailey (Franchot Tone) makes the rounds being his charming, slightly ingratiating self in order to dig up the facts at the behest of his employer. Tone is a dashing lead prone to cheekiness, but this is most of the fun, played in the vein of the best P.I. work of Bogart and Dick Powell if not quite as iconic.

No matter. It leads him to run around Los Angeles and take a venture to Portland, Oregon. The facts start unveiling themselves bit by bit but never in a clear, definitive manner. There must always be further convolutions and new moments of sheer incomprehensibility.

In a picture like this, every single Dick and Jane might as well have a motive and the cast just keeps on coming. To explain how all the characters fit together siphons off a bit of the gamesmanship of the drama. It’s safe to say John Ireland is a brooding heavy. Steven Gerray, though graced with pleasant features, somehow contrives them, along with his accent, into something vaguely sinister.

Then, there’s the bald-pated cafe staffer Buffin (Sid Tomack), who knew the dame in a former life when she was making the move to Los Angeles. There’s a Chauffeur who seems oddly invested in the whereabouts of Mrs. Johnston and his enigmatic employer Mrs. John Vega Cabrillo (Janis Carter).

Others might be far more astute than me, but upon a single viewing, it’s easy to admit never quite getting one’s head straight on which woman is which, and maybe that’s the point of it all. Regardless, it hardly seems necessary to avail oneself of the details.

Janet Blair has near-top billing and drifts into the story almost haphazardly on the pretense of finding her sister. Janis Carter is suitably brooding with that imperious allure of hers. Adele Jergens is just another pretty face who jousts with our protagonist because what would such a picture be without her? Finally, there’s Glenda Farrell with a bit of lovable fortitude as Hazel Bixby, Bailey’s hapless secretary.

It actually proves to be a fine asset, having so many female characters all of varying degrees of importance, but all getting a piece of the pie. Because granted some are more cursory than others, and yet I’m even disposed to remember the two waitresses (Karen X Gaylord and Roseanne Murray) at the sidewalk cafe. It says something about the characterizations, where the bit players get to leave an impression.

These whirling, abstruse brands of noir often work best on this level. I Love Trouble can generously be christened a lesser disciple of The Big Sleep but nevertheless a decent go at the gumshoe genre. Because it has the peculiarities — small pockets of interest — placed within the befuddling signposts of the plot.

Roy Huggins would be remembered much later for his work in television for shows like 77 Sunset Strip, coincidentally starring Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. as Stuart Bailey, and then The Rockford Files, which owes more than a small debt to the hardboiled procedurals of the olden days with a James Garner twist for the 70s.

The final moments of I Love Trouble could play out as a male dreamscape. Our protagonist is surrounded by a myriad of women, and yet since the threat is abated, he’s taken in by the calls of matrimony. For being such an obscure entry in the noir canon, it’s quite a surprising piece of diversion if you go for such things.

3.5/5 Stars