No Way Out (1987)

No_Way_Out_(1987_film)_posterIn the 1970s political paranoia involved issues in the realm of Watergate. Government conspiracy and that type of thing perfectly embodied by some of Alan Pakula’s best films. But it’s important to realize in order to better understand this particular thriller, the 1980s were a decade fraught with fears of Soviet infiltration compromising our national security. The Cold War was still a part of the public consciousness even after being a part of life for such a long time already. So No Way Out has a bit of Pakula’s apprehension in government and maybe even a bit of the showmanship of Psycho with some truly jarring twists.

The conflict is surprisingly close and even if it involves the vast bureaucracy of the Pentagon and various other arms of government, Roger Donalson’s film only takes great interest in maybe three or four characters really.

From early on its evident that Kevin Costner is our everyman and the person who we will be investing our time in for the rest of the film. It’s a star-making performance to add to a string of classics including the Untouchables, Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, and Dances with Wolves.

The always capable Gene Hackman takes on the role of Secretary of Defense and his ultra-loyal right-hand man Will Patton goes to great lengths to protect his superior. They are key to the storyline as is Lt. Commander Tom Farrell’s girl Susan Atwell (Sean Young) who also moonlights as the Secretary’s mistress. Her character is lively and a crucial player but over time it becomes evident that above all else she’s used to serve the plot and ratchet up the tension.

Already you can begin to see the complications and their ensuing implications. But that is only the beginning of No Way Out because in its latter half it drops off the deep end with a seismic shift that shakes up everything we knew before about this world.

It’s in these moments that I had the sneaking suspicion that I’d seen this before somewhere and it’s easy to see the striking resemblance to the 1940s noir The Big Clock. On further examination, the two stories do share some of the same plot points from Kenneth Fearing’s novel but this is certainly a re-imagining meant for the 1980s transposed to a politically charged arena.

Once more we have the authorities looking for a phantom man but the said man seems to be the only one who knows he is innocent. Off such a foundation No Way Out builds a pulse-pounding narrative that at times feels utterly absurd but it also tapped into the fears of that age and even this one that our highest modes of government are being undermined by our enemies. The Big Clock boasted a more idiosyncratic and colorful script but No Way Out certainly works well as a highly underrated thriller.

My initial assumption would have been that Hackman would have played a bigger role and potentially had a shot of pulling the spotlight away from Costner but our lead remains our lead to the very end, dashing in a uniform and incredibly fearless when it comes to defying authority.

If nothing else it leads to a vacuous car chase that ends up on foot in a Subway station. Hackman and Fernando Rey did a better job of it in The French Connection but that does not take away an ounce of the enjoyment. Because whether you’re ultimately a fan of them or not, No Way Out does have some monumental twists that will either leave you scratching your heads incredulously or cause you to fly off the handle in indignance.  If you crave a good old-fashioned political thriller 80s-style No Way Out is worth it.

3.5/5 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

 

While the City Sleeps (1956)

whilethecity1While the City Sleeps has a brilliant cold open followed by a pounding title sequence, courtesy of Fritz Lang, that brings to mind a bit of Diabolique and Psycho. The rest of the film turns into a case to find the wanted lipstick murderer (based on a real killer), but that only holds part of our attention.

When newspaper magnate Mr. Kyne dies suddenly, his begrudging son Walter (Vincent Price) takes over intent on shaking up the status quo and putting his mark on the company. He soon turns three men against each other as they desperately fight for the new position of executive director. The first is veteran newspaper editor John Day Griffith (played by the always memorable character actor Thomas Mitchell). The second candidate is chief of the wire service Mark Loving (George Sanders) who is Griffith’s main competitor. Finally, in the third spot is Harry Kritzer who happens to have a secret ace in the hole. Each of them is tasked with finding out the real scoop about the serial killer, and it turns into a real tooth and claw ordeal. Within the glass cubicles, everything can be seen, but not everything is heard and that’s where the secrets get disclosed.

On the outside looking in, so to speak, is star TV reporter Edward Mobley (Dana Andrew), who agrees to help his friend Griffith by doing a little digging around about the murderer. He gets some tips from a cop friend Lt. Kaufmann (Howard Duff), and Mobley tries to smoke the killer out on air. However, it leads to the potential endangerment of his fiancée Nancy, who also happens to be Loving’s secretary. Loving has his love directed towards a female reporter named Mildred Donner (Ida Lupino), who attempts to needle Mobley for info. At the same time, the killer is on the move once more, with Nancy being an obvious target. Mr. Kritzer’s own romantic entanglements get him in trouble because he is seeing Kyne’s beautiful but detached wife Dorothy (Rhonda Fleming). Mildred finds out about them and they have some talking to do. Mobley also has some making up to do with Nancy after she finds out Mildred came to see him. It’s a big mess.

whilethecity3Mobley juggles everything from his love life to the big scoop and they apprehend the killer, but things at Kyne’s don’t wind up exactly the way they expected. Mobley looks to move on from the paper with Nancy, but even he cannot get away that easily.

While the City Sleeps is an underrated tale from Lang that is positively stacked with big names. Its pacing can be deliberate at times, but it is just as much an indictment of journalism as it is a thriller. The office is a web of deception with so many interconnections between these work factions. Those you would normally expect to be scrupulous seem to give up their honor in the face of this new promotion. In a sense, Mobley seems to be outside of this fray and yet he cannot help but get involved in it. It doesn’t help that nothing turns out the way it’s supposed to. Everybody seems to gain something, but nobody really wins the game.

I must say it was great to see Dana Andrews in one of these leading roles again and although their roles were smaller, Ida Lupino and George Sanders still were a deliciously stuffy and corrupt pair. I was never really a fan of Vincent Price due to the roles he normally plays, but I was inclined to like Howard Duff (Lupino’s real-life husband) in his turn as the policemen. It goes without saying that Rhonda Fleming is positively beautiful, but she also cannot be trusted. I guess that applies to about every character in this film. It’s certainly a cynical world out there that Lang paints, where the killer might be caught, but corruption is never fully quelled.

4/5 Stars

The Naked City (1948) – Film-Noir

58f41-nakedcityposterDirected by Jules Dassin and starring Barry Fitzgerald, Howard Duff, and Don Taylor, this documentary-style police procedural is an intriguing film. It begins with an omniscient narrator explaining the setting in New York. Soon we witness the aftermath of a murder. Then, we are following the detectives in Homicide as they try to follow the case. A beautiful model is dead and the suspects are few. Furthermore, they must figure out how stolen jewelry and a drowned man fit into the case. As Lieutenant Muldoon suspects, everything leads to an unknown culprit, a McGillicuddy. Little does the perpetrator know the police are closing in on him and it is only a matter of time. I found this film to be unique because of it’s narrator, semi-realistic approach, and relatable characters. On top of that the progression of the story was interesting and the ending sequence was entertaining. There truly are 8,000 stories in the Naked City. Enough to make a TV show.

4.5/5 Stars