Vera Cruz (1954): Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster

Below the Mexican border, during Antebellum days, a diverse array of Americans find themselves in the middle of the fight against Maximillian of France. Vera Cruz is far from a history lesson, however. It need not be. Still, it plays as an important footnote in a different type of history altogether, that of the classic western genre in a current state of evolution, jutting ahead into the 60s.

The script is not always phenomenal, but what it does have is an Aldrich-like penchant for the cynicism of noir. It starts to make even more sense when you consider Borden Chase’s pedigree: a fine row of Anthony Mann westerns. And yet the good sense of amusement overshadows everything else. This is how it still manages to remain a product of the 50s (which isn’t necessarily bad).

Its other readily available and beneficial assets are star power: the pairing of Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster fits the bill. Then, the on-location shooting does so much to elevate the environmental credibility. There is no other way to make this picture feel truly robust aside from actually finding your way down to Mexico. It’s not that it’s a wholly authentic experience, but at least something in these locales breathes of some form of reality.

Lancaster has the beefier, more intriguing part as Joe Erin, but Gary Cooper (Ben Trane) is able to bring his even-keeled strength to a new generation of westerns, and it serves the picture splendidly. It’s paramount that the two stars act as the utter antitheses of one another while still managing to be opposite sides of the same archetype.

Their garbs still plant them squarely in the traditions of olds, Cooper in the light colors of an undisputed hero and Lancaster game to wear the pitch-black clothes of a two-bit bandit, who would shoot a man in the back and hold children hostage.

Due to Coop’s presence, I couldn’t help but feel Vera Cruz is somehow reminiscent of the adventure films of old like Lives of a Bengal Lancer. There is a similar sense of camaraderie here and our main characters are able to blow through their mission on their own personal valor, even as the locals only purpose seems to be that of collateral damage.

As hinted at before, Vera Cruz is also an early forerunner to a future generation of westerns, all but losing the luster of the mythologized west for something grittier, more graphic, and in some ways, more stylized.

This is the lineage that will lead us to The Magnificent Seven, Sergio Leone, and The Wild Bunch Et al. The presence of Charles Bronson and Ernest Borgnine in a pair of minor thuggish roles are a convenient nod to their future counterparts. For that matter, even Jack Elam would get into Once Upon a Time in the West.

The picture can generally be characterized by two distinct tones: giddy in one moment and equally tense and unsentimental in the next. If you mentally draw up any partnerships or rivalries in the picture, you’re probably apt to see it. It’s incredibly fluid. This precedent is effectively established when Erin growls at his pack of thugs that they aren’t even his friends. Instead of ganging up on Trane, he welcomes him aboard into their merry company.

In other words, he doesn’t show favoritism, nor does he harbor any kind of sentimentality. It’s both an asset and a curse. Always game for a new gun to come around, but equally intent upon looking after number one. His sole allegiance is to himself.

In their attempts to sell themselves out as mercenaries in the Franco-Mexican War — potentially to Marquis Henri de Labordere (Cesar Romero) — they find themselves trapped. Rebels poke their heads over the side of mission walls, guns pointed menacingly down on them.

One must only dip back into the memory bank to remember a similar visual in Butch Cassidy. But of course, in this picture Coop is still infallible and by most accounts, indestructible. Talking his way out of predicament with casual diplomacy and whipping out his six-shooter only upon provocation. He’s entered the grimy, blood-spattered world full of its ambiguous tones, and yet he still remains stalwart. One of the last remaining bastions of the archetypal western hero.

If anything, Vera Cruz signals the decline of his reign over the West, even as it manages to have a wagon full of fun. They show their prowess with a Winchester rifle in the courts of Emperor Maximillian, only to be entrusted with a tenuous mission to escort a Countess (Denise Darcel) to Veracruz. Their valuable cargo winds up being more precious than they first envisioned when they discover it’s loaded up with gold bullion.

The gold becomes the driving force worthy of all sorts of double-crosses and easily rearranged allegiances. There are those driven by greed, others who want the kingdom, and still others, the most noble of all, who want to return the nation to its rightful rulers.

In this last act, the patriotic Juarista and the French forces face off with all the fervor you can imagine. The editing feels surprisingly quick for a day and age when breaking 10 seconds on an individual shot was not altogether uncommon.

Aldrich, in his first big production, fused with the talents of cinematographer Ernest Laszlo, boasts a picture with a lot of frenetic energy to offer. It is an imperfect, at times, disjointed effort, but it willingly takes hold of the bridle and rides the story to a worthwhile conclusion.

There are ample visually striking moments to reference, from a column of men on horseback fleeing across the plains and then, in the climactic moments, gattling guns rattling the terrain with bullets. Cannon volleys follow in earnest as a charging onslaught of men look to take the Bastille, as it were. Clouds of gunpowder and smoke hang in the already dusty air.

This is purely on the macro level. Overlaid with Erin’s relentless ambitions to acquire the gold for his own, and Trane looking to do anything in his power to keep him at bay. It comes down to the fated face-off, all but bubbling under the surface from the first time they ever laid eyes on one another. Do you really need to guess the outcome? See it for yourself.

The final emblematic images are of a ravaged battleground strewn with dead bodies. Widows and orphans scurrying to find loved ones and survey the damage. Who ends up with the gold at this point feels inconsequential. The conclusions drawn might as well be the cataclysmic effects of avarice and war. Though Vera Cruz has enough wherewithal to manage a decently good time going about it. This might be an unfeeling observation to make but, once again, it also remains a fitting portent for the future.

3.5/5 Stars

Classic Movie Beginner’s Guide: Montgomery Clift

In our ongoing series, we continue shining a light on classic actors we think more people should get to know. This week our focus is none other than Montgomery Clift!

Monty Clift was one of the unsung champions of a new brand of acting that bridged the gap between the New York stage and the soundstages of Hollywood. Before Marlon Brando, James Dean, and others, Montgomery Clift introduced moviegoing audiences to a new form of intense masculinity paired with a striking vulnerability.

His life was marred by tragedy but instead of dwelling on that let’s celebrate the extraordinary career he forged for himself with some of the great directors of his generation. Here are 4 of his greatest movies with performances to match. 

Red River (1948)

Image result for red river 1948

What’s immediately apparent about Monty Clift is how particular he was about his roles. Because his film debut was nothing short of an instant classic. In this iconic sagebrusher from Howard Hawks, Clift went toe-to-toe with a vengeful John Wayne, playing an adopted son and his father who vie for control of the family herd with startling outcomes. 

The Search (1948)

Image result for the search 1948

Once more Clift aligned himself with an esteemed director — this time Fred Zinnemann — and invested himself in a story with real-world urgency. He plays an American soldier who takes in a young boy orphaned by the war. They strike up a relationship while racing against the clock to reunite him with his kin. The chemistry between the two is beautiful to watch.

A Place in The Sun (1951)

Image result for a place in the sun

This is the film that will forever define Clift’s career slotting him opposite a dazzling Elizabeth Taylor in one of her first adult roles. The adaptation of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, directed by George Stevens, captures the emotional weight Clift was able to channel into many of his greatest roles. It’s one of the most devastating romances of American film thanks in part to Clift and Taylor.

From Here to Eternity (1953)

Image result for from here to eternity montgomery clift

Although I’m led to believe the film is slightly overrated, there’s nothing wrong with Monty who brings his continual range as a troubled soldier on the eve of Pearl Harbor. Though it’s easy for him to get overshadowed by kisses in the waves between Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr or the gutsy performance of Frank Sinatra, there’s no question Clift is front and center playing opposite Donna Reed.

Worth Watching

The Heiress, I Confess, The Young Lions, Wild River, Judgement at Nuremberg, The Misfits, Freud: The Secret Passion.

The Swimmer (1968): A Fable Starring Burt Lancaster

The_Swimmer_poster.jpgI am tempted to call The Swimmer a pretentious fable about the waters of life. It is set in the upper echelon of Connecticut society, but the same cross-section might hold true in California as well. In fact, one could say this film effectively extends the pool metaphor of The Graduate (1967).

Because it is indicative of not simply prosperity, but “The American Dream” as well, synonymous with plastics and water filters that filter out 99.99 of all solid matter. Whereas Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) floats along in the water lazily, not quite sure what he is doing after graduation, Ned Merrill (Burt Lancaster) has a completely different experience, though he does live in the same WASP bubble.

For him, he forms some quixotic fantasy to swim his way back up the hill to his home, making his way by taking a dip in everyone’s pool on the road there. It dawns on him that “Pool by pool they form a river all the way to our house” and so he takes a swim down memory lane.

Each new home he comes upon puts him in contact with old friends, neighbors, children, acquaintances who never want to see his guts again, and various social gatherings. We don’t necessarily have enough time to make any judgments on those around him — they might easily come out of Mike Nichol’s film as well — but we do see an awful lot of “Neddy.”

What is extraordinary and simultaneously maddening about The Swimmer is how it blends dream-like, sun-soaked imagery verging on the surreal with these real-world scenarios. We can easily imagine a real-life counterpart to each of these people existing in the flesh and yet the film is never concerned about drawing them out.

It’s playing with the landscape and reveling in its own metaphor. We have refracting light cutting through the trees, deep piercing irises staring off into the distance unblinkingly.  Vaulting bodies and galloping legs provide the continuous motion to propel our picture ever onward even as it languishes in these self-indulgent asides.

Because there are many encounters between all of Merrill’s swimming strokes, the best recourse is to highlight only a few. Julie Ann Hooper (Janet Langard) is the pert young babysitter who agrees to join Mr. Merrill on his endeavor. Between quotations from the lurid Song of Solomon and admissions of girlish crushes, they have a fine time.

But every moment of gaiety is just as easily forfeited when all the pretense of fun and games are lost in the face of ugly reality. Ned tries to play their relationship off as something innocent, but it verges on the uncomfortable time and time again. There comes a point of no return.

Another telling moment comes when he happens upon Shirley (Janice Rule who replaced Barbara Loden), a woman reclining poolside with a magazine in hand. It comes out that they had a messy history together. He was the philandering husband and she the “other woman.”

Her defense mechanisms are those of bitterness and acerbic retorts. Within this context, she feels merciless, and yet one must admit she has a reason for harboring a grudge. Again, it speaks to Ned — this “suburban stud” who has insulated himself with agreeable fantasies. He doesn’t realize how he has harmed others.

His final leg — arguably the most telling — is at a public pool where his decadent delusions are rudely shattered for good. These folks do not have the pretense of all his affluent friends and so they view his life with a certain amount of aversion. They see right through his facades, and they aren’t buying the schlock he’s peddling. It turns out his life is a decaying, crumbling mess on all fronts.

Cocktail parties and rivers of champagne only serve to exasperate the problems at hand as the men and the families they hold up begin to fracture under the weight. Underneath the surface of the water, fissures have riddled his very foundation. He cannot hide them any longer. It’s only in the final minutes we realize how very dire the situation is.

Burt Lancaster, from a physical standpoint, seems like a marvel, defying his age as he streaks through the woods like a youthful buck and churning through the pools with methodical ease.

He’s still capable of making the ladies swoon too but there’s the ever-present undercurrent there. There’s this quality to him — capable of being the cad and somehow tragic in the same sense — that’s ever arresting. Just look into his eyes and you know it to be true. It’s quite a stirring performance and as the most important piece to this drama, he more than accommodates the audience.

3.5/5 Stars

Classic Movie Beginner’s Guide: Kirk Douglas

With this ongoing series, our goal is to help people who are new to classic movies, get a foothold. To make it easy, we give you 4 representative choices and then some supplementary options.

Sadly, with the passing of Kirk Douglas earlier this week at 103 years of age, it seemed apropos to tackle his career for those who might be interested. There are so many great movies to choose from, spanning the decades, but we’ll give it our best shot.

Champion (1949)

Image result for champion 1949

Kirk Douglas had so many stellar early supporting roles in noir: Strange Love Martha Ivers, Out of The Past, I Walk Alone are all memorable. However, Champion was Kirk Douglas’s big break channeling his trademark intensity into the ring as an overzealous fighter. It would set the tone and help shape his growing reputation in Hollywood.

The Bad and The Beautiful (1952)

Image result for bad and the beautiful 1952

Despite all the glitz and glam to go with a Hollywood storyline, Kirk Douglas is as blistering as ever. Like Sunset Boulevard or In a Lonely Place, it shows another side of the industry and Douglas and Lana Turner deliver some of the most memorable performances of their careers in this Vincente Minnelli drama. That’s saying something if you consider Kirk’s work in Detective Story and Ace in The Hole around the same time.

Paths of Glory (1957)

Image result for paths of glory 1957

Paths of Glory stands as one of the great wars films for the very reason it runs counter to many of the narratives we know well. At the core of this Stanley Kubrick WWI piece is Douglas as a man caught in the middle of the insanity of war, in this case, perpetrated by his own superiors. If you want more conventional entertainment there’s also Gunfight at The O.K. Corral (1957) highlighting Douglas’s longtime screen partnership with Burt Lancaster.

Spartacus (1960)

Image result for kirk douglas spartacus

Spartacus is arguably the tentpole of Kirk Douglas’s entire career, and it has the epic spectacle of sword and sandal epics of the era with Douglas anchoring the action with his typical dimpled charisma opposite Jean Simmons. Behind the scenes, the picture would prove to be a watershed for unofficially ending the Hollywood Blacklist by openly crediting ostracized writer Dalton Trumbo. It’s one of Douglas’s great moral triumphs as a Hollywood producer.

Worth Watching

A Letter to Three Wives, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Man Without a Star, Lust for Life, Last Train from Gun Hill, Lonely are The Brave, Seven Days in May, etc.

Run Silent, Run Deep (1958): A Streamlined Submarine Drama

run silent run deep 1.png

Run Silent, Run Deep features what amounts to a cold open, set in the Bungo Straits, near the coast of Japan in 1942. The foreboding sonar-infused score by Franz Waxman suggests this will be a no-nonsense war drama and sure enough, within the first 5 minutes, a submarine commanded by one P.J. Richardson (Clark Gable) has been sunk in its mission to destroy an enemy ship, leading to the capsizing of the entire crew.

As Richardson looks back at his receding enemy, we see the film’s objective right before us. He is bent on revenge. Given the situation, this is not a film so much about survival but returning to finish a job no matter the circumstances, dangers, or counter-orders standing in the way.

After a short leave of action, Richardson talks his way into another command, this time taking over from Jim Bledsoe (Burt Lancaster) who has already formed a close-knit rapport with his men. They don’t look too kindly on a new man taking over and Bledsoe broaches the subject bluntly with his new superior.

Richardson is hardly going to be dissuaded by a minor thorn in his side and his new crew begrudgingly take to the grueling regiment of drills he has them on. No one is looking to make any friends. This is hardly a film about buddy, buddy or camaraderie. There isn’t time. The one thing the commander does instill in them is discipline and well-oiled efficiency. It’s probably the greatest gift he can give them based on the circumstances.

The stakes are obvious as the death trap, Area 7, has led to the loss of four separate Allied subs, including Richardson’s previous command. What the story devolves into is a fairly straightforward WWII drama which is nevertheless riddled with tension as they knowingly enter perilous waters.

It’s true a submarine serves as an impeccable locale because its very form functions in constraining the action and ratcheting up emotions. There is no release valve and all these crewmen are literally submerged underwater for hours at a time. If that isn’t nerve-wracking I’m not sure what else qualifies.

Combine this environment with men who are already in tight quarters only to become more contentious over a major distaste in their commanding officer. It’s easy to envision him as a modern-day Captain Ahab. His white whale is the infamous Japanese Akikaze, Bungo Charlie, that he’s already has a deadly history with. The seafaring setting and power dynamics also hint at the traditions of The Mutiny on The Bounty though the story foregoes this exact demarcation.

While there are few flourishes or subsequent surprises from director Robert Wise’s film, there’s no question in labeling Run Silent, Run Deep an immersive experience, even for such a streamlined endeavor. In fact, that more than anything plays to its advantage. This allows it to be compact actioner extremely aware of its outcomes and not content until its mission has been accomplished. While it does not leave a great deal of leeway in the area of character development, our cast is a varied and compelling ensemble.

Obviously, the central figureheads are Gable and Lancaster, two hard-bitten battlers who are also consequently, far too old to be playing their parts. But this is Hollywood, after all, so it’s easy enough to make allowances when you’re getting top tier talent.

However,  surround them with the likes of Jack Warden, Brad Dexter, Don Rickles (in his film debut), and Lancaster’s long-time collaborator Nick Cravat, and you have something quite engaging.

The key to the success of both the mission and the film is that it ends as quickly as it begins. It gets in and gets out with striking precision, taking little time to rest too long on its laurels. Between the flurry of malfunctioning torpedoes, the barrage of enemy depth charges, and bombs raining from up above, there is plenty of flack to provide antagonistic interference. By the end, it seems a miracle our men get through at all but of course, it’s not without a toll, both physically and mentally.

Because even when you cannot see the enemy in the flesh, the capability to do harm hardly slackens. In some cases, it proves even worse. What is easier to exterminate, an enemy who lacks any type of form or personage or one that is living and breathing? In this regard, Wise’s picture is sterile and impersonal. It’s not so much a flaw as it is a sobering reality.

3.5/5 Stars

The Flame and The Arrow (1950): Italy’s Acrobatic Robin Hood

Flame_and_the_arrowposter.jpg

In the region of Italy called Lombardy, Dardo Bartoli (Burt Lancaster) is a bit of an Italian Robin Hood. However, his acclaim as an outlaw is brought on by personal conviction and a blatant disregard for authority. Others are captivated by his lionhearted bravado and fearlessness that, even as a peasant, leads him to brazenly defy the local despot Count Ulrich (Frank Allenby), known as “The Hawk.”

The two rivals have a muddy history embroiled in wonderfully complicated family dynamics as we soon come to understand. No, they are not related, as Dardo has no noble blood, but his former wife (Lynn Baggett) has willfully taken up as one of “The Hawk’s” courtiers. For that, the proud man has never forgiven her and entreats his young son to remember his mother so he can know the truth about what she did. The boy is played by the terribly precocious Gordon Gebert who many might remember from his memorable turn opposite Janet Leigh in Holiday Affair (1949). He’s much more astute than his age might lead us to believe.

In an act of skill and overt cheekiness, Dardo shoots down one of the king’s prized hunting birds and must flee across the rooftops, scaling walls and scrambling away to live another day. But his son is not so lucky and he gives himself up to the guards so his wounded father can get away. He will be taken to be with his mother and trained up in the way of a nobleman. Learning how to carry himself and dance like a little gentleman. But that doesn’t mean he has to like it. He is the heart and soul over which the entire film will be fought over.

Though he received a great deal of help from quality stunt performers like industry veteran Don Turner, there’s no doubt Lancaster’s own training as an acrobat was put to good use in this swashbuckler, which even saw him partnered with one of his old company Nick Cravat.

There’s an instant camaraderie between Dardo and the mute Piccolo. It’s palpable because the two performers have, in fact, spent many years together on the road doing acrobatic feats together so the trust is by no means a fabrication. They put the real-world rapport to good use through every trial they must face together. They know amid all the treachery on hand, their friendship will hold fast.

Among other bits of mischief, they create a man-made avalanche to come raining down on “The Hawk’s” guards in a mountain pass to frighten them away. Then, the merry brigands are joined by Allesandro (Robert Douglas) who was recently scorned by the Count. He is accompanied by his bard, a very well-versed fellow with a wry wit (Norman Lloyd).

Soon Dardo is on his way to disrupting the king’s courts to collect his son and comes swinging down right into their dinner, fending off the soldier’s lances with a flaming torch. Whether or not it would be practically effective is up for debate but it sure looks cool.

Although they are thwarted in their initial objective, in the hubbub, they manage to steal the princess, the Count’s glamorous niece (Virginia Mayo), away from the castle as leverage. She’s taken back to their lair, situated on some ruins in the wilderness, far from the prying eyes of the Count, to wait it out in captivity. The next move is to bait an irresistible trap for the outlaws by taking Dardo’s feeble uncle to be hung on the gallows within the city gates. The showdown is set. And yet when that is handily dealt with a whole row of new hangings come in its place.

The Count is beyond playing nice. He wants to see Dardo squirm and he’s going to do everything in his power to end him once and for all. In fact, it looks like he’s outmatched his pesky arch-rival. Yet with the help of the townsfolk, the outlaw pulls off one of the great death-defying stunts of all time.

At its best, The Flame and The Arrow really becomes a game — a medieval fencing match with deliberate lunges to go on the offensive then feints and parries, ripostes and other countermeasures all culminating in one final victor. But it comes down to the wire.

The king’s guardsmen prove no match for hordes of villagers and carnival showman led by Dardo, in one last daring siege, rescuing prisoners and overrunning the premises in a most uproarious fashion. But the beauty of how the allegiances have been set up means in order to get to the king, who is looking to run off with Dardo’s boy to live another day, he must go through Allesandro who is compelled to hold him off.

All in all, The Flame and The Arrow lives up to its name with lively acrobatic combat sequences and an impressively agile Burt Lancaster. I must admit I had never seen him in this light as a kind of cavalier action hero cast out in the mold of Douglas Fairbanks or Errol Flynn. I know now he was more than capable of the rigorous challenges.

Virginia Mayo is as feisty as she is radiant, caught between her royal blood and a man who excites her more than anyone she has ever met. Meanwhile, Jacques Tourneur demonstrates once again that he is one of the finest directors of genre pictures Classic Hollywood ever had moving so freely between horror, westerns, adventure, etc. He can do it all.

4/5 Stars

Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)

sorry wrong number.png

“In the tangled networks of a great city, the telephone is the unseen link between a million lives…It is the servant of our common needs — the confidante of our inmost secrets…life and happiness wait upon its ring…and horror…and loneliness…and…death!!!” ~ Opening Prologue

Sorry, Wrong Number is a fairly unique adaptation in that it came into being from a radio play written by Lucille Fletcher, successfully realized for audiences as essentially a one-woman production by Agnes Moorehead — a fine actress in her own right. Director Anatole Litvak does an extraordinary job of making this film version tense and certainly cinematic, as it cannot function in the same ways as a radio show if it is to be similarly effective.

Like Rear Window (1954) or Wait Until Dark (1967), the suspense in the film comes with being constrained in a space with no way of escape from an impending intruder. It’s little surprise Barbara Stanwyck is divine offering her typically captivating performance even if, given her usual predispositions, she hardly fits the helpless wife archetype. Being the professional that she is, there’s no doubting the ferocity of emotion within her. To use a hopelessly corny pun, she hardly phones in her role as Mrs. Stevenson, the bedridden wife of a husband who just cannot seem to be located.

Though still young, Burt Lancaster brings the screen presence that made him a mainstay of early film noir. Still, he and Stanwyck somehow seem ill-paired as husband and wife. One could contend that works nicely into the plot as their marriage is essentially one-way, becoming increasingly loveless as more of the picture is revealed. She wants him and her daddy has the money to make the world spin. It’s not romance. It’s a business transaction.

So although Harry Stevenson (Lancaster) is initially going with another gal (Ann Richards), soon enough Leona’s got him. They get married and he gets a job working under the father-in-law but he feels his hands are tied with no real prospects of making anything of himself. He’s not content with this kind of lifestyle. He has ambitions of his own.

One might suspect he’s finally had enough and left his wife for good. Of course, part of the fun is that the story is pieced together through different characters recounting events, done through voiceover fragments. It becomes a kind of compulsory game we must play along with.

First, it’s Mr. Stevenson’s secretary who recounts the woman who came to his office with something urgent to talk about and it piques Mrs. Stevenson’s suspicions. Then, she gets in contact with the old flame named Sally Hunt Lord who is now happily married to a District Attorney. Nevertheless, she was worried that Henry might have been mixed in something awful, even tailing her husband and trying to get at her old beau to uncover what might be the matter. It’s all very mysterious.

Next Leona breaks up her Doctor’s (Wendell Corey) dinner engagement only to hear more of the story and how her husband kept the doctor’s prognosis from her. By this point, we’ve gotten in so deep that we have layered flashbacks. Only in noir, and we still have yet to stitch the entire convoluted mess together.

The last crucial figure is a specter of a caller named Waldo Evans who actually turns out to be a kindly old man caught up in the racket that Stevenson’s been promoting. The script doesn’t give us much to go on based on the restrictions of the production code but it has to do drug trafficking. That much is almost certain.

By this juncture, we’ve almost forgotten William Conrad was in the picture but he shows up right where you would expect him in the thick of something big. As she’s put through the ringer of psychological duress, trapped in her ominously vacant home, Stanwyck’s absolutely maxed out on the intensity.

Admittedly it does feel like two pictures told in tandem and spliced together. Stanwyck headlines what we might term the “woman’s drama” while her husband is embroiled in a shifty noir replete with the murky shadings of a criminal underworld. Of course, Lancaster is remembered for his early pictures like The Killers (1946), Brute Force (1947), and Criss Cross (1949) which share some nominal similarities.

Sorry, Wrong Number showcases an icy ending that was nearly unexpected for not only how abrupt it is but also how very unsentimental. To say more would give it away outright. Flaws readily acknowledged, Sorry, Wrong Number is a noir worth making time for as it builds tension to a fever pitch and obscures its hand behind minute after minute of methodical voiceover. When we’ve finally caught up with the events rumbling forward in real time, it’s too late to do anything and before we know it, everything’s already come to fruition. One might call that an adequate success in the storytelling department.

Due to its histrionics, the picture was ripe for parody. In fact, Barbara Stanwyck was featured on a segment of The Jack Benny Program in 1948 using extensive recordings from the film only to have Benny wind up in much the same mess. And of course, there’s Carl Reiner’s noir sendup/clip show starring Steve Martin, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982). It’s all in good fun.

3.5/5 Stars

Criss Cross (1949)

criss_cross_1949_trailer_2Aesthetically, Robert Siodmak’s roots in German Expressionism are crucial to the formation of the film-noir world as we know it today and Criss Cross has to be one of the most diverting additions to his repertoire. Once more he’s paired with his star from The Killers (1946) Burt Lancaster with another raging score from Miklos Rozsa and yet again there is a heist involved. However, whereas the film inspired by Hemingway’s original story was a story about a washed-up boxer — a humble Citizen Kane if you will — with some criminal elements mixed in, Criss Cross is all thriller. It represents the subset of film-noir that is the heist film, but it would hardly be film-noir without something going terribly wrong. This event is integral to the plotting as is the love triangle that becomes the main axis of the ensuing action.

The location shooting throughout L.A. is put on display in the opening shot when the camera swoops down on a parking lot right outside a lively nighttime watering hole known as the Round Up. In these early stages, Siodmak reels his viewers in with a seductive close-up of Yvonne De Carlo looking straight at Burt Lancaster, her lover, except in looking at her man she’s also staring directly at the audience as well with those earnest eyes of hers. And from that point on her role as a femme fatale is cemented for good.

We know she’s undoubtedly nothing but trouble and yet we cannot help but be strung along with Lancaster. After all, someone that beautiful cannot be all bad, right? They never are, right? And we spend the rest of the film grappling with these questions, although the worst is always inevitable. So it goes with Criss Cross.

However, for the audience to try and understand the stakes of the story, most of the great film noirs develop the character’s pre-existing life as much as they magnify the moments of immense conflict. Criss Cross begins in the middle but soon flashes back to when Steve Thompson (Lancaster) first returns to Los Angeles, the sparkling city where his family lives as well as his former wife Anna (De Carlo). And despite the sirens going off and the chiding of friends and family including his mother and his concerned cop friend (Stephen McNally), he finds himself attracted to her once again like a moth to a flame.

He’s soon infatuated once more, embroiled in passion and at the same time petty bickering, tied up in complicated knots as Anna is also seeing the gangster Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea) who doesn’t take kindly to having another man around. In immaculate fatale fashion, Anna plays everyone off with a certain degree of vivacity and at the same time deadly innocence. One moment lively and carefree, the next biting and selfish. You can never pin her down and Steve never does. Still, he’s devoted to her. He goes half-way on a heist with his bitter rival just to save face and subsequently finds himself knee-deep in corruption that he never dreamed of, all because of a girl.

But aside from dealing with a guilty conscience, he still must survive a vengeful gangster.  The number of crisscrosses isn’t all that important, only the fact that they happen and on numerous occasions. The film finishes up with a gloriously fatalistic ending that while abrupt, in typical Classic Hollywood fashion, still delivers a satisfying final conclusion, going out just as it came in, with a rewarding dose of noirish intrigue.

Echoing the words of Proverbs, “The lips of an adulterous woman drip honey, and her speech is smoother than oil; but in the end, she is bitter as gall. Her feet go down to death.” That about sums up Criss Cross: an exhilarating and altogether deadly exercise from Robert Siodmak. Those questions still burrow into the back of our mind to the very end. Was Anna really insidious or just misunderstood? We’ll never know exactly. But perhaps the results speak for themselves. Anyways, that’s for each individual to judge on their own.

4/5 Stars

The Professionals (1966)

220px-Movie_poster_for_-The_Professionals-Who wouldn’t be enticed by a film entitled The Professionals? It feels a little like an amalgamation of The Magnificent Seven, The Dirty Dozen, with a  little sprinkling of Mission Impossible, and dare I say The Wild Bunch? We have a band of four big-time pros who are brought together to rescue the wife of a man named Grant (Ralph Bellamy). She is being held at ransom in the heart of Mexico. That’s no small task in the wake of Pancho Villa and the Mexican-American conflict, but these men are the best of the best.

The leader is none other than Lee Marvin (of The Dirty Dozen) with his prematurely white hair, leading the band as Rico Fardan, a skilled tactician, and former U.S. Army Officer. He is joined by Jake Sharp (Woody Strode), who is the best tracker around and also a crack shot with a bow and arrow. Next, comes skilled horseman and pack master Hans Ehrengard (Robert Ryan), who keeps mainly to himself. The most dynamic part is that of Bill Dolworth (Burt Lancaster), an unscrupulous scrounger who nevertheless is a good shot and an artist when it comes to using explosives. He’s not what you call a trustworthy type, but Rico would trust this man with his life and that says a lot.

Richard Brooks story is straightforward enough. This dream team goes in with their mission clear: The man who stands in there way is revolutionary turned outlaw Jesus Raza (Jack Palance), who is the one keeping Maria (Claudia Cardinale) captive.

As they push forward, they witness the brutality of Raza and his men as they raid a passing train and execute many of the occupants. Soon Fardan and his crew move in on Raza’s compound and wreak havoc one night so they can pull Maria out and take her to safety. But she seems like a very reluctant damsel in distress. She also seems very intimate with Raza. That’s the first sign that something’s up, but still, they follow the parameters of the assignment and pull her out.

Retribution follows and after a gunfight The Professionals flee through the mountains with Raza in hot pursuit. They use explosives to try and impede the progress of the rebels, and then Dolworth resolves to stay back to bide his partners time so they can get across the border. It’s at this point that he fights like one of the magnificent seven, in an impressive rearguard action that has his foes befuddled.

It’s when he actually comes face to face with his enemy that things become interesting. They know him and he knows them. Once upon a time, he fought with Raza and he was also acquainted with the lively female marksman Chiquita. When they finally get back to good ol’ Mr. Grant they find he’s not as straight-laced as they once thought, so they make a costly decision. They lose out on their big payoff but do the honorable thing by setting Maria free.

The Professionals gives us want we want. Honestly, we want cool characters and fun action sequences and that’s essentially what we get. There’s quite a bit of fairly graphic violence too for a ’60s western signaling a slow change in the genre. Lee Marvin is impeccable as the self-assured, tough as nails commanding type. Lancaster is, of course, the most interesting, and I can only imagine he had the most fun because playing a scoundrel would undoubtedly be a treat. Strode, Palance, and Cardinale were enjoyable to watch in their own rights as well since we did not necessarily need a whole lot of depth from them. It was only Robert Ryan’s role that felt rather like a throwaway part that did not have much to it. No matter, the Professionals was still an enjoyable all-star western.

J.W. Grant: You bastard.

Rico: Yes, sir. In my case an accident of birth. But you, sir, you’re a self-made man.

4/5 Stars

Review: The Killers (1946)

Thekillers2It’s been said that Robert Siodmak’s The Killers was Ernest Hemingway’s favorite adaptation of one of his works which was, in this case, a short story. As a film-noir, it works on numerous levels from the cinematography, to the score, to the young stars, to the ingenious narrative. Some credit, of course, can go to Hemingway for the concept, but a lot of the creative success must be given to the likes of Siodmak, John Huston and a host of others.

The film opens in an instant with two lurking gunmen entering a diner in a small New Jersey town called Brentwood. Their target is a washed up boxer called “The Swede” and we do not know why, but after terrorizing a few locals, they riddle him with bullet holes and that’s the end of it. It’s an intense sequence because the thugs (William Conrad and Charles McGraw)  are antagonistic and Miklos Rozsa’s score is nearly relentlessness.

The story could have ended there if it wasn’t for an insurance investigator named Reardon (Edmond O’Brien), who takes an interest in the dead man so he can find his beneficiary. In the present, he begins to piece together little fragments of the boxer’s past slowly but surely.

It starts out with Nick Adams who witnessed the thugs and worked with The Swede when a mysterious man came by the filing station. Soon after Ole Andreson stopped coming in to work and a while later he was dead. That’s all Nick knows, and it does not give Reardon much to go on.

Next, he tracks down The Swede’s beneficiary who turns out to be a kindly hotel maid. The connection seems slim, but it turns out that she kept him from committing suicide after a tough evening where he tore his flat apart. It’s still not much to go on, but Reardon thanks her and moves on with his investigation, still intrigued.

Then he goes to Philadelphia and gets his biggest puzzle piece from a policeman named Lubinsky, who used to run with the Swede as kids and probably knew him the best of anyone. He and his wife explain to Reardon how Pete Llund, as he was known, lost his final bout and was forced to move on with his life. About that time he met Kitty Collins for the first time and was infatuated for good.

Charleston is next the old stooge who spent a good many years locked up in a cell with the Swede. Reardon comes upon him at the funeral and from the old convict, he learns about a bank job that the washed up boxer got involved in. The other partners were Blinky, Dum Dum, and Big Jim. They are Reardon’s next points of interest.

Blinky is near death and recounts the robbery. Dum Dum crosses path with Reardon and shares about the aftermath of the job which went sour. Next, comes Big Jim whose tight-lipped about the past. Last but not least is Kitty, who is fearful that Reardon knows something and can actually blackmail her. That’s when everything begins to line up and heat up. After being absent for so long, the Killers are back in the picture and Rozsa’s score picks up again threatening the status quo of the film. They put us on edge again and for good reason. But the real focal point of the ending is Kitty.

Obviously, Citizen Kane has so many layers of interest, but it shares a similar narrative arc to The Killers where the main character is killed and his story gets pieced together thanks to flashbacks that are furnished from the present. Except, in many ways, the story of The Swede intrigues me more as a character. Charles Foster Kane is a magnate with an impressive if not tragic life.

Swede’s life is probably just as tragic except it was more humble and chock full of more crime. He was small time and he even failed in love when his friend Lubinsky got the girl of his dreams. It’s an interesting life too that ended unnaturally with gunshots rather than Kane who died as an old man. The Swede was cut short in a tragic sort of way and I think that’s part of what intrigues Reardon. It’s more than a job, but a mysterious story of a man’s life that the audience also gets taken along for. As far as storytelling goes, it’s great and it really works to flesh out these characters.

Ultimately, Reardon feels like the main character of sorts, but such an aura is built around The Swede and Kitty that it is understandable that this film made stars out of Lancaster and Gardner. They are certainly memorable partially because we hardly ever seen them in the present (except for Kitty at the end). Their whole persona is built off of what others say and there’s something interesting about that. There’s the fatalistic and sullen Swede which turned out be a perfect debut for Burt Lancaster. Ava Gardner has the soft seductive whisper of lethal poison all wrapped up in a beautiful body and it leaves a major impression.

Above all else, The Killers is a prime example of film noir blending German Expressionism from Siodmak’s native Germany with more documentary style sequences that take inspiration from post-war neo-realism. The opening sequence especially drips with noir sensibilities that, at its most dramatic, looms with shadows from the exterior of the diner to the low-key lighting of the Swede’s bedroom. For a while, it’s even difficult to know that’s Burt Lancaster reclined on the bed because his whole body is fully encased as he speaks. It’s only when he gets up into the light that we finally are introduced before he gets gunned down a few minutes later. It’s great staging and the atmosphere remains for a great deal of the film from the prison cell to Big Jim’s mansion. Each place is contrasted with the present or other locales like Reardon’s office which are more natural in lighting. It doesn’t get much better than that.

4.5/5 Stars