Tall In The Saddle (1944)

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“Boy oh, boy has somebody come to town!” – Gabby Hayes

How else is there to describe Gabby Hayes except for a cantankerous old cuss? When we first set eyes on him he’s berating his old mare for making him spill his liquor although he’s already swigged down quite the snootful.

Even Walter Brennan who was often cast in similar roles showed some diversity in performances during his early years (maybe Hayes did too) but Gabby will always be such a lovable coot in my eyes. Because, you see, if you grow up on westerns of the B variety with the likes of Gene Autry and especially Roy Rogers, Gabby Hayes was a mainstay of the genre as far as sidekicks go. I was fond of Smiley Burnette and Slim Pickens but no one holds a candle to Hayes.

He makes us chuckle along with the tall handsome stranger who’s just witnessed the same events. Before ever interacting we know they will wind up good friends. They hold a mutual admiration for each other.

The man named Rocklin, played by Marion Morrison and known to the world as John Wayne, rides shotgun on the stage headed for the town of Santa Inez. The coach’s other occupants are a terribly irksome old crone and her demure young niece who are heading to the same town for some business. Rocklin has come for the prospect of work.

However, he finds out the man who paid for his train passage was killed and his holdings have passed onto to the very same young lady in the stage except her peevish aunt is not about to allow her to conduct her own affairs.

Rocklin seems to have little reason to stay and yet he does. He gets into a tussle with a young hot-head over a poker hand. Then, the next day he gets a faceful from strong-willed Arly Harolday (Ella Raines); she comes into town to get this brazen newcomer to hand the money over.

How can you not love John Wayne? His lady costar confronts him, guns-drawn and shrilling at him to stop and turn around but he just keeps on walking nonchalantly as she fires a hail of bullets all around. He pushes the saloon’s door open and saunters up to the bar, nice as you please.

The next such moment could have easily been a climax — as a gun duel looks all but imminent. Wayne cuts a business proposition short and proceeds to clock hulking George Clews over the head with the butt of his revolver before going back inside to return to his conversation. He subsequently gets hired on as Topaz ranch foreman.

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As he so eloquently puts it, “No women is going to get me hogtied and branded.” However, that does not account for the power-hungry land grabs and the shooting of men in the backs that’s being orchestrated. Wayne must navigate with his own brand of sleuthing. A later highlight follows our hero destroying an entire office space having it out with his old football chum Ward Bond, playing a local judge.

While there’s nothing especially novel about the yarn spinning, there’s nevertheless something comforting in this as Paul Fix pulls double duty as co-scriptwriter (with Michael Hogan) and also portraying the thug Bob Clews.

It does feature two formidable female characters, one in Raines whose fiery pistol-packing showcases her own charisma opposite Wayne, while Audrey Long, who plays the reticent Easterner, proves to have enough intuition to see the picture to its conclusion. Because it must end with Wayne a wanted man, a posse coming to get him, and two guns looking to finish him off. But he has some corruption to thwart and let me assure you he puts an end to it just as assuredly as he nabs the girl — I’ll let you be the judge which one it ends up being.

Search for an underlying moral and you might not discover anything outright. What you will receive for your trouble is a good ol’ fashioned western vehicle for John Wayne that he tackles with his usual fearless gumption. Despite his rediscovery in Stagecoach in 1939, that didn’t mean that The Duke had quite risen above B fair completely. For what it’s worth, Tall in the Saddle does the low budget genre justice.  Besides Duke would get plenty of other quality movies in the future.

This is an unnecessary aside but whenever I hear John Wayne speak Spanish it always seems to add another layer of authenticity to his persona. He once said that he’d want to be remembered by the phrase, “Feo, fuerte y formal.” He was ugly, strong, and had dignity. Sounds about right.

3.5/5 Stars

Crime Wave (1954)

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The opening gambit is wonderful. It’s marvelous. You can’t blame me if I get a little…Well, anyways if you thought that squeaky-clean Doris Day could never turn up in a film noir you were gravely mistaken.

In this particular case, a jovial gas station attendant has her blaring loud on the radio right before he gets whaled on. Crime Wave makes its intentions fairly clear right from the beginning. Here is yet another arbitrary noir title that tells you next to nothing. That’s what this first scene is for. It tells everything to us in visual language.

A trio of San Quentin convicts are pulling bank jobs dotted all the way up and down the coast of California and this is just one of them. But a cop has been killed and they ran off with the cash register’s contents.

I had to do a serious double take because my eyes must have passed over Charles Bronson’s name in the credits. Seeing him young and tough as ever is like seeing an old friend — even if he’s playing a thug.

He’s an ogling and ill-mannered brute as can only have a life in such a darkly cynical world. Meanwhile, Ted De Corsia is the ringleader who has been sitting on his scheme for years now. But they need someone to call on — a new home base for their operations after one of their men gets a bullet in the gut.

Just like that, reformed jailbird Steve Lacey (Gene Nelson), currently working as an airport mechanic and married to a nice respectable girl (Phyllis Kirk) hears his old life calling. It’s the old Out of the Past (1947) conundrum. You never truly escape the specter. So he gets netted once more by his old mates and slowly dragged back into the crime world he hoped to never look back on.

But even in his attempt to maintain his path on the straight and narrow and remain on the right side of the law, one momentary lapse in judgment is all that it takes. He tells his wife to keep a pact with him. A man came to their house and that was all. He doesn’t want to be implicated any further so he leaves out the shady doctor who took the cash on the dead convict’s person. It seems such an easy bit of information to divulge but then again, the world is twisted in knots of confusion. He’s paranoid and distrusting of everyone. Perhaps he has every right to be.

Two dueling philosophies seem to present themselves from the side of the law. Police Detective Sims (Sterling Hayden) holds fast to that old adage that “Once a crook, always a crook” while Lacey’s kindly veteran parole officer seems to think that “sick men get well again.” And as the film seesaws back and forth we are forced to consider both trains of thought. The cop with no heart for ex-cons or their wives, while the parole officer entertains more sympathy. But it’s hardly enough.

However, that plays precisely in its favor as a gritty picture rooted in realism while still overlaid with a cinematic crime story inspired by a Saturday Evening Post write up. The film presents a world where the cops are as cunning as the villains and in a sense, they have to be.

It has the imprint and the contours of an L.A. that existed at one time — though now eroded and reconstructed through the years — but this is a stylized vision of it all from Andre de Toth. The streets and names might be all too real from Glendale to San Diego but the events and accents are not — overrun with stray cats and dogs — not to mention the colorful mugs of pet doctor Jay Novello (some might remember his nervous-types on I Love Lucy) and the forever crazed-faced Timothy Carey.

It becomes a sort of neorealism with the Hollywood touch even in its ending which while not a complete sellout definitely caps the film with optimism. And in that moment, maybe Crime Wave gives us a hope for the real world. Maybe cops and robbers don’t look all that different. Maybe they both are prone to corruption and vice. But maybe justice can still be enacted.

If this film was all about morals it wouldn’t be worth much to many movie audiences. Thankfully it’s a gripping picture that places us right into the scenario like all the great caper films and it gives us a hero to empathize with. The visuals are presented as a stellar piece of added everyday reality. Search this one out if you’re a fan of small-time gems.

3.5/5 Stars

Shack Out on 101 (1955)

Shack_Out_on_101_film_posterLike a Cry Danger (1951) or a Private Hell 36 (1954), this low budget film noir flick is such a joy to watch because it wears what it is right on its sleeve, clear out in the open. What we get is an utterly absurd paranoia thriller that also happens to be a heaping plate of B-noir fun.

It’s a dirty, grimy picture about a dirty, grimy place. The cook behind the counter’s named Slob (Lee Marvin) and he has a dirty mind and disheveled look to match. He’s constantly at odds with the owner of the roadside shack (Keenan Wynn) and they make countless verbal barbs at each other time and again. You get the feeling that they relish jawing and putting the other man down.

Meanwhile, though the joint might not be one of the most frequented attractions there is some traffic from PCH and it brings in a few regular visitors.

The day-to-day “Hash Slinger” and longtime waitress Kotty (Terry Moore) is in the middle of a rapturous romance with a local professor Sam Bastion (Frank Lovejoy), and she’s beyond ecstatic to be going with someone who is a real man — intelligent and gentlemanly. Though recently he’s been especially occupied with work.

The traveling salesman Eddie (Whitt Bissell) with a nervous streak nevertheless remains a tried and true friend. He and George (Wynn) both made it through D-Day together and since then he always makes a habit of coming by the old place when he has a free moment. Kotty and the Professor take kindly to him too. He’s just that kind of amiable fellow.

Shack Out on 101 shines most obviously amid its small talk because there’s an invention to the dialogue that’s delightfully slovenly and colloquial. It’s full of the types of dialects, jabs, and put-downs that fill our everyday conversations in a way that feels thoroughly authentic and brings each character alive as they sit at the counter.

There might be two men standing in the front of the diner on a slow day lifting weights and talking about how muscles are for amateurs. Pecs are what real men call them.  Then they proceed to show off and compare their physical attributes. No reservations whatsoever.

Later on, they try out the latest fashions in spearfishing attire as they dream about the mythical “Pancho” who they’ll soon spear in the tropical waters off the coast of Mexico. Little do they know how close that is to the truth. Except there’s no need to go to Mexico. The catch is right at home.

When the film actually gets preoccupied with its plotting, it starts to go cockeyed and crazy. Admittedly, fallout from the Cold War must have been on everyone’s minds because, like Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955), this picture too tries to play the nuclear angle. It’s hardly effective though I suppose it needed a broader, more concrete story to add a certain amount of intrigue and this one is complete with spies and government secrets.

Still, in the end, it comes out pretty thin. What we truly relish as the audience are not the attempts at drama but the way the film manages to make its apparent lulls invariably interesting and even how it manages to have asides at all given its infinitesimal running time. Sure, it won’t win any awards and the joint is a real dive but that’s all part of its cruddy charm. For a B-picture, this cast is quite the array of talent.

3.5/5 Stars

Blast of Silence (1961)

Blastofsilence.jpgIt looks like we’re staring into a black hole. Disorienting. Dark. Swirling around us. Our eyes adjust as our narrator begins his voiceover that will cover the majority of the film’s canvas. In this moment he talks about that initial spark, that moment of birth when humans leave the womb behind and see the light of day for the first time. In that same instance, we burst into the open air and realize that what we were looking at all along was the long dark tunnel from a moving train.

It’s from that train that our main protagonist hops off to get to work. He settles in a hotel room. Gets his assignment laid out with all the applicable details. He spends some time getting to know his target from the comfort of his car and picks up the gun he’ll use to commit the dirty deed. His supplier is a pudgy beatnik with a penchant for rats — a real salt of the earth kind of guy — but Frankie (Allen Baron) was never looking for a new friend.

However, he does bump into an old one. Because New York City used to be his home when he was a boy. He tried to get away from it. His memories of the orphanage and the Nuns who once cared for him. But now he’s back and one of the boys he grew up with is staring right back at him with his good tidings and Christmas cheer.

Frankie gets distracted. This complication throws him off his agenda because for one brief moment he becomes an actual human being and his very human desires begin to overtake the mechanisms of a stone cold killer. These are the same callous instincts that dictated his actions thus far. Things begin to come into their own and evolve into something truly inspired. It’s when Blast of Silence stops being a mere atmosphere or an aesthetic and becomes something real.

Because initially, this crime film is a grungy unsentimental picture that wears its low budget on its sleeve, delivering the kind of crime scenes that Jean-Luc Godard would have been proud of. However, this is not a French New Wave auteur but instead the director and star Allen Baron. At first, it seems like an exhibition not so much in style but a look and a mood and a feel. Drudging up images of the gritty pavements of Brooklyn, shipyards, and train tracks. Meanwhile, the score meanders between jazzy interludes and melodrama given the mood.

There’s a sense that it relies too heavily on its voice-over — the inner monologue of its lead — and still, that’s hardly a criticism because the film does so much that is engaging. In the end, Blast of Silence begins to suggest the immense isolation of a man in such a position. We’ve seen it before but few portrayals are so unflinching and pointed. Even as he pushes towards his objective, he’s simultaneously a picture of loneliness. We begin to question what leads someone to this career path. Some hints are left for us to make our own inferences. He’s an orphan. He’s searching for love. He wants something more. He wants a life with other people. Love, community, family perhaps.

Yet as it goes, God works in mysterious ways and you’re alone again back in the cold black silence like how things began. The film takes on a thoroughly pessimistic ending that nevertheless feels like a fitting conclusion amid the whirling rage of real-life Hurricane Donna. A truly unsentimental journey in the existence of a hitman.

3.5/5 Stars

Plunder Road (1957)

220px-Plunder_Road_posterThe rain is pouring down. A group of men sits in silence in truck cabs their heads full of all sorts of thoughts. Two more sit in the rear hoping the explosives sitting in their stead don’t decide to go Kablooie over the next bump. Nary a word is spoken, the entire sequence playing out in silence except for the inner monologues of each man.

But surprisingly enough all goes as clockwork with this heist as they gear up for a train carrying a U.S. Mint gold shipment. They divert the track. Get their men in place and board the vehicle to subdue all aboard. That’s done quick and efficiently and they continue doing their work that same way. They use one of the truck’s crane to hoist their plunder into the waiting beds of their getaway vehicles. No one sees it go down and no one will know anything about their job until they’re well on their way.

Of course, that’s only the first leg as the five accomplices break off. Now the spoil is split between the three trucks one loaded with furniture, another with “chemicals” and so on. So even though the events have all been done before, the execution of Plunder Road makes its version interesting in its own right.

The one lone driver steadies himself by chewing gum like there’s no tomorrow but that doesn’t help him to get past a police checkpoint after some radio static gives him away. He’s one casualty.

The only name of repute in the film that I knew was Elisha Cook Jr. now quite along in years and he’s playing a con man with the gift of nervous gab in the second vehicle. He tries to get buddy-buddy with his mate and we actually do learn some small trifles about them. It’s not much but it’s the kind of stuff that begins to make them into human beings.  They both have sons. One had his wife die while he was in the clink. The other never married. Their journey takes them to a rural gas station out of necessity and there we have the second casualty a neighborly old gas station clerk.

By this time the story has progressed to the third vehicle and they’re really sweating it now no thanks to special correspondent John Oliver from Salt Lake City who practically lives on the radio airwaves to provide the latest up to date news flashes. They weather routine police questioning and bide their time at the usual rest stops on their way to their final destination — a foundry near LA.

It’s an odd place to go but they do their best to conceal their prize in order to make their final getaway way far away from any nosy policemen. Though there plan doesn’t work completely. Still they manage. They pick up a girl who has their passports waiting for them and it looks like smooth sailing. But film-noir was born in an era that was hard-pressed to allow crime to pay and it’s a single moment of cruel fate that leads the heist off the tracks for good. Like Detour or The Killing and other such classics when fate rears its ugly head, things are never allowed to work out. That’s the accepted convention.

Plunder Road is so close to letting at least a few of its perpetrators get away but then it snatches their gold away from them. Compact heist films don’t come much better than this and this one benefits from a heightened sense of unsentimental realism.

3.5/5 Stars

Woman on the Run (1950)

Woman_on_the_RunB-films have little time to waste and this one jumps right into the action. In a matter of moments, a man is shot, another man has killed him and a third witness gets away into the night. Although Frank Johnson (Ross Elliot) is rounded up by the police to be a witness he gives them the slip for an undisclosed reason and they must spend every waking hour trying to track him down.

What’s important to this particular story is that he left behind his wife Eleanor (Ann Sheridan) to be questioned by the police and they are hurting for a break. They need answers so they slam her with all sorts of inquiries.

She’s not all that cooperative though and the reasons are rather hard to discern. Is it belligerence, fear, or sheer apathy to the entire ordeal? Because you see, Ms. Johnson for some time had been drifting apart from her husband an accomplished painter who nevertheless put little stock in his own skill.

And that’s where the film’s two themes begin to intertwine.  The police surmise that the runaway man is fleeing a killer, but for his wife the implications are twofold. In her eyes, he’s just as likely running away from a marriage he couldn’t cope with. That is her dilemma which she masks both pointedly and inadvertently with various diversions to keep the police reeling.  After all, she’s not particularly keen on helping them or sticking around for that matter.

Whereas in earlier roles Ann Sheridan was always slightly overshadowed by other performers, most notable of those being the always electrifying James Cagney, here she gives perhaps her finest performance and she’s at the center of it all. That’s not to say she isn’t surrounded by a stellar supporting gallery.

Dennis O’Keefe, remembered as a gritty leading man in pictures such as T-Men and Raw Deal, showcases a new playful side as a journalist trying to nab a scoop on the runaway witness and at the same time making eyes at the man’s bride. But he manages to give the part some life that goes far beyond a one-dimensional characterization. There’s more to him as we soon find out.

The other important player turns out to be Inspector Ferris (Robert Keith) who as the long arm of the law is looking to find his man before his adversary does. But he’s not about to take flack from anyone and if ever there was a cop who was no-nonsense he fits the bill. His croaking voice always interrogating his subjects in a continuous effort to get his job done. Too bad he wasn’t quite counting on Ann Sheridan.

A relentless climax aboard a roller coaster at a local amusement park precedes Hitchcock’s Strangers on the Train when it comes to making carnival games such a deadly ordeal. And there are hints along the way ratcheting up the tension whether it’s a familiar cigarette lighter, a striking coincidence, or a passing remark that initially goes unnoticed.

The script strikes a strange path at times given to clunky expositional dialogue that feels as trite as can be and then in the very next sequence there’s a bit of patter or a dry quip that makes things all the more interesting. Also, a pair of small supporting roles for Victor Sen Yung and Reiko Sato add another layer of authenticity to the characterization only surpassed by the on location shooting that catches the essence of mid-century San Francisco.

In the end, Woman on the Run turns out to be one of those wonderful treasures that has rather unfairly gotten buried in the dusty attic of film noir. But far from being an antique, it plays fairly well today with an underlying tension running through Sheridan’s performance as she not only reflects on her own dwindling marriage but stresses to discover her husband’s whereabouts in fear of his very well-being.

It’s surprisingly entertaining and you get the sense that if Norman Forster (a fairly prolific actor, director, and screenwriter) were someone other than Norman Forster, this picture might have been scrutinized more closely. As it is, it’s just waiting for more people to dredge it up. How did I get here? If you’re a sucker for film noir and Ann Sheridan there’s no better place to go than Woman on the Run.

3.5/5 Stars

Suddenly (1954)

Suddenly_(1954_movie_poster)In some ways, the sleepy town of Suddenly feels like it could have easily been the prototype for Mayberry (Willis Bouchey’s appearance acting as the one actual tie-in to The Andy Griffith Show). The sheriff wanders around lazily. He knows everyone by name and they probably haven’t had anything exciting actually happen for 20 or 30 years at least. But then they go and have something bigger than Mayberry ever dreamed. No filling station robberies, or shipments of gold, or even a group of out of towners trying to case the bank. This is big. It involves the President of the United States and Frank Sinatra or rather Johnny Baron, the man who`s looking for a big payday from assassinating the commander in chief. But people generally liked Ike and so the Secret Service roll in to take the necessary precautions including cueing in the local sheriff on the particulars and shutting down the town.

But the one family that doesn’t happen to get the memo are the Bensons who just happen to have the property overlooking the town — the perfect point to knock off an unsuspecting president from but, of course, a thought like that would never cross their minds, not in a quaint town like Suddenly. Still, Baron has thought about it quite a lot and he and his cronies make a house call on the Bensons and subsequently take over their humble abode, except the family doesn’t realize yet that this is a home invasion.

It just so happens that one of the Veteran servicemen Agent Carney (Willis Bouchey) goes way back with Pop Benson (James Gleason) and so he and Sheriff Shaw pay a visit to the family but the welcoming committee is far from obliging. After the initial setup, the film evolves into a tense drama involving not only the imminent attack on the President but the very real hostage situation that we are now privy to. The majority of the ensuing drama is crammed inside the tight quarters of the home as all the hostages tensely wait for events to unfold. Sheriff Shaw looks to keep Baron talking as they bide their time.

But even his background in law enforcement cannot fully prepare him for who he is dealing with and that’s a great deal of the enjoyment that comes out of Suddenly. The characters are ripe with possibilities and Sinatra, in particular, gives an electrifying performance off of Hayden’s somewhat uncharacteristic stalwart turn.

Paul Frees as one of the thugs wasn’t quite bad-enough (sorry for the Rocky & Bullwinkle pun) and the other hired gun is constantly clutching his ulcer.

Richard Sale’s script is surprisingly vibrant and it does a lot in a limited amount of time building up connections and backstories of characters that help make each life valuable while simultaneously increasing the stakes, packing a punch on multiple occasions. And although there were more guns than I was expecting it’s far more than a simple shoot ’em up.

Sinatra’s character is tormented by demons, constantly referring to his own war record and the silver star he won, and in the same breath writing off the hit on the President as just another job for him. It’s true that the specters of World War II seem to affect everyone. Likewise, Ellen Benson (Nancy Gates) must grapple with her own hatred of violence and guns as a result of her husband’s death in the war that keeps her from allowing her spunky son Pidge from seeing war movies or playing with firearms. She’s also hesitant to indulge the calling of Tod because she’s not ready to move on. Each of these aspects underlines the film’s main conflict.

There’s also some striking connections that can be made to the Manchurian Candidate (also featuring Sinatra) as well as the realization that this was the pre-Kennedy era, meaning no one knew what was possible. In some ways, the film’s premise seems rather incredible but then again maybe it was more credible than even the makers of the film realized. Just a few years down the road our President would be killed, the man Frank Sinatra would sing a campaign slogan for.  So, Suddenly comes off as a B-picture but it rises above those meager expectations and turns into a fairly impressive thriller with some stalwart talent and moral issues anchored in its plot.

3.5/5 Stars

 

The Big Steal (1949)

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Granted you have star power but it’s easy to assume that The Big Steal will be a no name picture. A minor triumph at best. Not so! This film fares far better than countless of its bigger competitors.

It proves to be a winking romp full of bedroom brawls, car chases, and twists and turns every which way that send us whipping through Mexico. Equally important to the pace of the action is the levity of the script from Daniel Mainwaring (under a pseudonym) that gives our stars something to do and they do it effortlessly.

Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer (partnered again after the undisputed classic Out of the Past) meet as the two obvious foreigners in a sea of locals as Mitchum is getting accosted by a street vendor to buy a parrot. He’s one of those foreigners coming off as a buffoon navigating other cultures and the languages that go with them. Though I can’t ride him too hard as one of those blundering Americans myself. Still, his Spanish is mediocre at best and she is aghast at his cultural insensitivity. So right there you have the needed romantic tension and things only get better going forward.

Because their association doesn’t end there. Of course, it doesn’t. Duke Halladay is out to nab the man named Fiske (Patric Knowles) who absconded with some of his hard earned cash and Joan had a similar job pulled on her — the man of questionable integrity also just happened to be her boyfriend.

The unlikely partnership is formed after Mitchum leaps for the running board of the other man’s fleeing vehicle and winds up dragging Greer in front of the Inspector General to explain the public disturbance.

The Inspector General (Ramon Novarro) happens to be a budding pupil in English as his second in command (Don Alvarado) attended the University of California which while being convenient for the story also manages to make our Mexican characters into actual individuals who are endowed with an animated quality all their own.

If the main chase is our leading couple trying to track down Fiske, who gives them the slip on multiple occasions then the scenario simply gets more convoluted as Duke’s superior (William Bendix) is tailing him. They have some unfinished business to attend to because Blake believes the other man took part in a theft of his own. Thus, The Big Steal is just that. Even the soft-spoken John Qualen (probably best remembered for Casablanca) gets in on the party and flaunts a bit of a villainous side.

Some of the finer moments are the lighter ones. There’s the ongoing patter of the dialogue firing off between Mitchum and Greer which couldn’t be better and it comes from the days where a guy could call a dame “Chaquita” and it’d stick. But the beauty of their relationship is Greer with that quizzical look of hers can dish it right back in Mitchum’s direction.

Likewise, during a winding car chase, the same character can quite seriously exclaim “Watch out for the cow” only to turn right around and create a livestock blockade of his own. Or because we are in rural Mexico cars can get stuck behind a caravan of hay wagons ambling along leisurely. They have no respect for the drama at stake. On another note, I’m flabbergasted that the cars involved survived at all with the dubious amount of off-roading they managed. I guess in the 1940s they built things to last.

There’s one hilarious roadblock in particular where Jane Greer uses her Spanish and Mitchum’s obliviousness to tell a local road worker (Pascual Garcia Pena) that they are madly in love and running away from her disapproving father. They must get through at all costs and it just so happens that Captain Blake is right behind him and receives a fine welcoming committee.

But the key is that the film ends not on the downward plunge but on the upswing as our two lovebirds observe the local mating rituals and give it their own twist. What a great picture and sure, it’s no Out of the Past but no one needs it to be. We already have one of those and The Big Steal is a leisure ride of its own making.

Set this against a backdrop beyond the Mexico border, a spliced together version of on location atmospherics and studio shots, and you are blessed with the wonderful patchwork of authenticity and artificiality that old Hollywood was known for in the 40s and 50s.

What’s more fascinating is that The Big Steal at least in this form might never have been. Robert Mitchum was hot off his notorious jailtime term because of marijuana possession, an event that undoubtedly solidified his reputation as an antihero. Meanwhile, not too happy with Jane Greer, RKO studio head and temperamental mogul Howard Hughes gave her this role out of spite.

How could a picture this small be any good with a leading man saddled with bad publicity? I cannot speak to contemporary audiences but today The Big Steal plays quite well. We have our stars and screenwriter to thank as well as a young up and coming director named Don Siegel who started out as a montage man and transitioned into B-pictures.

What makes him a wonderful worksmith is how he always seems to have a pulse on the action and he turns situations into truly dynamic entertainment even when it’s on a small scale. He didn’t need a big budget to still make a rip-roaring good time. The Big Steal is a stellar testament to what the Classic Hollywood studios were capable of with meager means. It’s an absorbing effort.

4/5 Stars

Cat People (1942)

cat-peopleCat People has one of those sensationalized B-picture premises and there are moments when its meager aspects let slip that this is a low-budget effort, but within those restrictions, it moves with a certain purpose and chilliness. It’s true that producer Val Lewton had a B-movie renaissance going on at RKO Studios and Cat People is one of his treasures.

At its core is a streamlined love story between a Serbian artist/fashion designer and the local New Yorker who falls smitten for her in a whirlwind. Simon Simon is simultaneously sweet and bewitching as Irena Dubrovna who intrigues Oliver (Kent Smith) as much for her exotic mystery and feline figure as she does for her genial demeanor.

In several candid moments, Irena explains to her new admirer that she is a descendant from a long lineage of cursed individuals. The stories she tells of immense evil and witchcraft have the ring of gothic horror stories to Oliver and the audience.  Certainly nothing to be taken seriously. They’re legends, after all, except for Irena they are strikingly real.  And her palpable apprehension about such things allows an impending dread to set in and reach us.

With these strategic bits of exposition and foreshadowing, Cat People sets its story up well, revealing just enough to give some teeth to the impending doom as the narrative slowly descends deeper and deeper into the haunting darkness hinted at early on. But it’s the very fact, that that is not where it dwells all the time. It finds its plot in very mundane and ordinary things. The romance between two individuals. A young woman who is taken with walking through the Central Park Zoo to observe the animals.

cat-people-2At Oliver’s work, talk around the water cooler is made compelling in that his best pal and colleague is the sensible Alice (Jane Alexander) always ready to lend a listening ear. She’s genuine in accepting Irena for who she is because she can tell that Oliver earnestly loves her. But at the same time, she serves as a contrasting figure — someone who is completely different than this enigmatic creature.

But another thread involves Irena’s time spent in the counsel of the psychiatrist Dr. Judd at the behest of her love. And when she comes to him with her personal troubles it becomes evident that there is a great deal of trauma buried deep within her as there is with many of us I can imagine. The doctor rightly extrapolates that “childhood tragedies corrode the soul and leave a canker in the mind.”

It’s this that becomes the source of the horror. Because certainly, this is a fantasy on more levels than one– the man’s never been unhappy in his life until now (That’s a laugh) and the woman has unnatural impulses (You fear the panther, yet you’re drawn to him again and again). But it’s rooted in some sort of fact, whether personal, mental, or spiritual.  And, ultimately, it is a harrowing amalgamation of psychological duress, sexuality, and spirituality that makes for a spooky outcome indeed.

It even taps into the apocalyptic biblical literature (Revelation 13:2) to lend a certain amount of ethos to its story. And even if the interpretation of the texts is broadened and pulled completely at of context, as a narrative device, it works wonders.

One of the film’s greatest and perhaps most obvious assets is its aesthetic with a crepuscular atmosphere courtesy of cinematographer Nicholas Musurasca. He would partner with Jacques Tourneur later on in the decade with the much-revered film noir Out of the Past.  And what it truly adds is character, making the fears of these individuals actually legitimate and heightening the tension. Cat People does not pop out at you or repulse with gratuitous gore but it’s a completely unnerving picture all the same.

4/5 Stars

The Prowler (1951)

the-prowler-1The whole thing turned on a freak accident. You’ve got to believe that Susan.

The Prowler doesn’t waste a moment of time with its opening credits as we are privy to a woman shrieking from within her bathroom. Why is fairly obvious. There’s a voyeuristic prowler on the loose and the police must be called on the scene. The men on call are Webb Garwood (Van Heflin) the discontent young gun and Bud Crocker (John Maxwell) the genial veteran. They search the premises, meet the flustered gal (Evelyn Keyes) and leave her be with no signs of a prowler remaining.

In fact, from that moment onward the prowler is only a phantom, a figment of the imagination, a convenient scapegoat. But blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo also cleverly uses this “person” to move his story forward seamlessly. The stage has been set. Our young cop has his interest piqued. Here is a beautiful, seemingly lonely woman and he can be her knight in shining armor. He’s taken by her and drops in on her with the pretense of monitoring her safety. In such a way, the narrative progresses into a love affair and an adulterous one at that. Because Susan Gilvray is married to the man who is always on the other end of the radio (ironically voiced by Trumbo himself sneaking his way into the film). He talks to her from far off and rather like the eponymous prowler, he too seems an almost otherworldly phantom haunting both Webb and his girl in their deceit.

It becomes obvious soon enough that Webb is the most crooked cop on record as he sets up a scenario that is tragic and he casts himself as a victim of circumstance. But it’s all orchestrated in such a way that Susan is free of her marriage and Webb receives the sympathies of the general public in the ensuing court proceedings. Soon after the drama has subsided, the pair of clandestine lovebirds turn around and get hitched. The next stop on their journey together is out to the desert as the action gets transplanted. Webb is keen on running a hotel and seeing a bit of the desolate country his former partner was always touting.

It’s in this back half where director Joseph Losey is able to develop his second major locale the ghost town of Calico which becomes the stark backdrop for the final act. It’s in such a setting where the couple looks to flee their misdeeds but they’re already so far gone, caught up in a lie that they cannot hope to mitigate. And that’s the tragedy. Webb cannot help to give up the lie even even with the love that he has found. Worst of all, it never was love at all.

Van Heflin was mostly an earthy, rough-hewn sort of actor but in the Prowler he’s surprisingly slimy and it’s a joy to watch him in that kind of role. Meanwhile, Evelyn Keyes is quite pretty and evocative but there’s almost a weary gauntness to her that’s hard to pinpoint. It hints a little bit at the hollowness and fleeting aspect of this romance that initially enraptures her but leaves her disillusioned. Also, the fact that Webb is surrounded by chummy average Joes like Bud and the dead man’s brother (Emerson Treacy), it just becomes more obvious how corrupted he is. Because it’s these real square, true blue individuals who willingly vouch for his character when he has none. They trust him completely when there’s nothing but deceit within him.

Dalton Trumbo is certainly ripping a few pages out of the likes of Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice, but he does a master class job to the glory of the B pictures. And he really only seems to falter once. Although it’s a major plot point, a turning point, it somehow hurts the film that we see Susan’s husband in the flesh. It’s only for an instance, but in that instance, he loses that phantom quality. He’s real and far from being haunting, the fact that we know him, makes this story sad really. In the end, we realize The Prowler in the expected sense, never existed. It was all an apparition, a figment of the imagination, simply utility for one man’s avarice.

3.5/5 Stars