The Killers (1964)

The_Killers_(1964_movie_poster).jpgAfter an opening to rival the original film noir The Killers (1946), though nowhere near as atmospheric, Don Siegel’s The Killers asserts itself as a real rough and tumble operation with surprisingly frank violence. However, it might be expected from such a veteran action director on his way to making Dirty Harry (1971) with Clint Eastwood.

With hitmen (Lee Marvin and Clu Galagher) as the motors for the story, they help maintain a similar flashback structure to the original film taken from Hemingway’s short story, except this time their inquiries are a little more forceful than anything the insurance investigator managed in Robert Siodmak’s film.

Furthermore, to fit better with the cultural moment boxing is traded out for race car driving as our fateful hero in this instance is Johhny North (John Cassavetes) a tragic figure who got caught up in love and wounded in the same instance.

Still, Cassavetes even before he was a director of great repute, he made for a quality acting force because the intensity always seems to burn in his eyes and it serves him well here yet again.

He and his mechanic partner (Claude Akins) are intent on winning a big pile at the racetrack but Johnny gets caught up in a romance with an alluring beauty named Sheila Farr (Angie Dickinson) who can’t get enough of him. But she also happens to be pretty closely connected to an unscrupulous “businessman” who conveniently pays the bills for her. If Johnny knew any better he would get out of there as fast as he could but she’s a knockout who seems to want him and he wants to believe in her sincerity.

Ronald Reagan takes on the uncharacteristically grimy role as the corrupt Jack Browning which interestingly enough would be the actor’s last Hollywood role before switching his sights on politics first as governor of California and then down the road aways as the president of the United States.

Like his predecessor so many years before, The Swede (Burt Lancaster), Johnny (Cassavetes) gets played for a bit of a stooge and as embittered as he is after a faltering racing career, he inserts himself into Jack Browning’s (Reagan) get-rich-quick bank job which is bound to spin out of control. Adding insult to injury Sheila is right there searing through him like she always used to. The imminent results speak for themselves concerning hitmen, dames, and everyone else who could possibly be caught up in the dirty business.

There are isolated moments where the drama gets laid down a little thick and yet for a film that was initially supposed to be a TV movie, this effort really is an enjoyable neo-noir despite being starkly different than its predecessor. In fact, that allows it to stand on its own two feet and even if it’s not nearly as good, Siegel’s film is still quite thrilling. Thankfully this one lives up to its name and it goes out as deadly as it came in which usually bodes well for a crime picture.

Part of that goes down to the acting talent because it feels like there’s no real throwaway role and everyone has something to keep them busy. Lee Marvin has top billing and he takes up a post that feels like it just might be the precursor to the enigmatic crime spree of Point Blank (1967). His performance along with Clu Gulager’s are undoubtedly the coolest bar none and yet they aren’t even in the majority of it.

That privilege goes to Cassavetes and Dickinson who light up the screen and play their character types impeccably. The same might be said for Claude Akins or Norman Fell. The only odd spot is Reagan but then again maybe that might only be my bias since I’m so used to seeing him be presidential.

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

The Lineup (1958)

Thelineupmovieposter6nfIn style if not entirely in execution The Lineup exhibits some similarities to Murder by Contract from the same year. Both films choose to take hit men as their main characters and it becomes a surprisingly intriguing way to look at a crime. Because the killers are a certain brand of sociopath who make film criminals all the more compelling based on not only on the way they carry themselves or the actions they take but the very words that leave their lips.

For the modern viewer, it’s very possible to miss the fact that The Lineup was a Dragnet-like detective show of the 1950s and this film installment carried over some of the same hallmarks from the program.

The police lieutenant is played by a no-nonsense Warner Anderson who utters every word as if he has marbles crammed in his throat. The other man (Emille Meyer) is what you expect from a second fiddle, a bit more flabby, a rounder face, and a funny intonation to his voice. Still, together these two men represent the arm of the law in San Fransisco, only two hardworking men in a vast force of crimefighters.

Don Siegel does well in all facets of the film from the opening mayhem on the streets of San Francisco that set the groundwork for all the rest, guiding the plot through the rhythms of procedures, hits, crime scenes, and casings. The climatic scenes on the Embarcadero pack the type of gratifying wallop you would hope for.

Meanwhile, Stirling Silliphant’s script has an odd cadence to it that’s particularly entrancing. It’s not hardboiled patter and that’s perhaps signified best by the fact that we meet our two main villains mid conversation on an airplane. One lauds the use of proper grammar and diction while the other, an out of town killer only known as Dancer (Eli Wallach) reads a grammar book to improve himself. After all, who’s ever heard a killer who knows their subjunctives?

From one end we follow the police as they look into a few big payloads of heroin that are being shipped in from Asia using unsuspecting tourists. There are no solid leads but they have enough competency to know something is up. They do all the things that they’re supposed to in order to nab the wanted parties. But it’s not that simple.

Because we also see a bit of what’s going on with the other side of the law. Dancer and Julian (Robert Keith) are called in to retrieve the payloads for a shadowy Mr. Big orchestrating everything from the background. And these are two of the most peculiar criminals you’ve ever known.  Dancer’s a bit of a tough guy and he’s almost never caught without his trusty briefcase that carries his silent killer. He’s not about to take any flack from their chatty wheelman (Richard Jaeckel) either.

Except Dancer listens to Julian, an older fellow (obsessed with last words) who seems to serve little purpose except to be Dancer’s constant voice of reason and his coach giving him pep talks and guidance from every location. First, a Seamen’s club near the Bay, then a local residence, and finally an aquarium where they track down their last unsuspecting carrier, a young mother (Mary LaRoache) traveling with her little daughter.

But all great crime pictures must have some kind of twist, a wrench in the plans or an about face and The Lineup likewise begins to tear at the seams. Except it actually begins to mean something because in some ways we’ve built more of a connection with the criminals than the good guys.

With its surprisingly authentic images of San Francisco preserved from the 1950s, you can definitely trace a line between this film and Dirty Harry another Siegel picture that made extensive use of SF’s iconic terrain as well. Silliphant also graduated to several big crime films most notably In the Heat of the Night. But there should always be a place for smaller gems like this because they must differentiate themselves from the pack in the ways they draw up their characters and how they choose to rehash themes that have existed all throughout the tradition of gangster flicks and film-noir. That is the only chance they have to be remembered. The Lineup certainly stands out amid the fray.

3.5/5 Stars

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

film1956-invasionofthebodysnatchers-originalposterBody Snatchers works seamlessly and efficiently on multiple fronts, both as science fiction and social commentary. Don Siegel helms this film with his typical dynamic ease putting every minute of running time to good use. The screenwriter, Daniel Manwaring, put together perhaps one of the greatest political allegories ever penned and, on the whole, it’s a  taut thriller combining sci-fi and horror to a tee.

It’s a wonderful bit of ethos that our main hero Miles Bennet (Kevin McCarthy) is a well-respected doctor, a genuine guy who over time gets transformed into a blubbering paranoid mess. It begs the question. What would evoke such a change in this man? Because it’s true. When he starts out he seems immeasurably chipper. Shrugging off a euphemistic “trip to Reno” and the subsequent alimony as if it were nothing. His practice is well-respected and his old beau, the beautifully elegant Becky Driscol (Dana Wynter) has returned to their idyllic town of Santa Mira, California.

The film’s amiable leads are able to suggest chemistry in only a matter of minutes. And though Wynter hardly seems indicative of a small town girl, it’s strangely of little consequence. While their relationship is integral to the narrative it’s only suggestive of the broader issue at hand — this epidemic of mass hysteria that slowly ingratiates itself on the small town.

It’s a systematic takeover — a silent killer– that runs city deep from the farmers to the police and everyone else in between. It comes slowly at first, only evident from a few seemingly incidental cases of psychological duress and odd coincidence. Dr. Bennet has sick patients leave messages with him frantically asking for help, only to reverse their pleas for help later. Then Wilma insists her Uncle Ira isn’t the same. There’s something different about him that she can’t quite put a finger on. The same goes for a young boy who repeatedly runs away from home insisting his mother isn’t his mother.

Once more Dr. Bennet finds the behavior odd but isn’t ready to come to a conclusion on it. But the epidemic continues and pretty soon Miles and Becky are horrified to find a faceless body at the residence of their close friends. It’s at this point where the full-blown hysteria begins to deluge them as well.

They must fight to stay awake as they try and get to the bottom of this nefarious scheme. But that’s precisely it. These alien lifeforms are using human seed pods to duplicate and replace people. For all intent and purposes, they look, move, and talk exactly the same. But perhaps the most telling human characteristic is absent. Their sense of feeling. Their emotions.

And as Miles and his girl frantically flee the invasion it continues to become more and more obvious that this paranoia-filled chiller is putting a voice to the anxiety of the age. Both in Hollywood and elsewhere. Both because of the Red Scare and the backlash caused by Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunts. Because that was the fear. That the Communists were infiltrating us. We couldn’t see them. We couldn’t weed them out because they were too well concealed. But another horror brought up by this film are the implications of having those you know and love turn against you and betray you.

All of that is in this film whether you want to acknowledge or not. But on a more cursory level, it certainly delivers on the horror and it’s the best kind of horror that’s not so much popping out at us. In those cases, the scare soon dies. It’s gone. But in the case of Body Snatchers, the horror is much more insidious as it burrows further and further into our brains. It has us unsettled from the first frame and it does not subside really until the film is over. Even with a “happy” ending, that cannot fully neutralize the impact of this 50s classic.

4.5/5 Stars

 

Private Hell 36 (1954)

privatehell1There’s not a whole lot to it. Aside from a wonderfully pulpy title, Private Hell 36 feels like a pretty straightforward endeavor from director Don Siegel. The low budget procedural nevertheless boasts a surprisingly good cast. The tale is framed by a nice bit of narration from the sitting police chief played by the always enjoyable Dean Jagger, in a particularly compassionate role.

Our story opens on a perfectly normal night where one copper seems to quell a drugstore burgle while he’s off duty, and another cop gets it in the crossfire between rival gangs. It causes the police to go on high alert.

When some street vermin rolls into the station to get booked, he’s found with some nifty paper. Detective Cal Bruner (Steve Cochran) and Jack Farham (Howard Duff) are assigned to follow the trail of a counterfeit $50 bill that’s pinned on a killer. So it’s more than hot money now. There just might be a murder rap at the end of it. Their canvassing leads them right to the lap of self-assured night club singer Lilli Marlowe (Ida Lupino).

Farham is a relatively honest chap with a doting wife (Dorothy Malone) and a kid already. Bruner has a propensity for recklessness, and he also takes a liking to Ms. Marlowe, especially after they spend so much time together.

privatehell2The temperature begins to rise when the two colleagues get caught up in a car chase with their counterfeiting adversary. All the days casing the local race track with Ms. Marlowe finally leads to some action. In the aftermath, one car goes careening off the road, and the boys have a decision to make. They frantically begin snatching up dollar bills and they decide to go dirty and make a run with the money.

Such a plot takes the usual turns that we would expect as girlfriends, greed, familial responsibility, and guilty consciences cloud the path to the straight and narrow. The film, which was jointly written by Ida Lupino and her former husband Collier Young, is no great work of art. But there is enough character conflict and crisis to make Private Hell 36 a gratifying piece of lower tier noir.

3/5 Stars

“You know I’ve seen this all on Dragnet” ~ Lilli Marlowe

 “Save the jokes for the customers” ~ Detective Bruner

 

Dirty Harry (1971)

2daf4-dirty_harryStarring Clint Eastwood as San Francisco police Inspector Harry Callahan, the film opens with a sniper knocking off a young woman. The self-proclaimed Scorpio says he will keep killing a person everyday until the city pays him off.  They go on high alert and Callahan stakes out with his new rookie partner Chico. However, Scorpio escapes once again and he is just begun. He kidnaps a young girl and threatens to kill her. Callahan runs all across town to deliver the ransom where upon a confrontation occurs. After they recover the girl they track down the killer but he is released because they had no warrant. A furious Callahan finally hunts down the conniving killer one last time after Scorpio kidnaps a bus load of children. In the ensuing chaos Harry finally gets his man. This is one of the great action films and it spawned a memorable character in Dirty Harry.

4.5/5 Stars