The Enforcer (1951)

220px-The_Enforcer_1951.JPGNot that this should deter you completely but The Enforcer isn’t a particularly unique crime film by any stretch of the imagination. Still, we have Humphrey Bogart headlining the police procedural not unlike a Call Northside 777 (1948), The Naked City (1948), or Panic in the Streets (1950).

He’s the acting district attorney entrenched in the war against syndicated crime in the city. And the case he has topples like a house of cards when his one key witness is terminated. All the efforts behind four long years of tireless legwork go out the window.

They knew that it was an expansive operation with a multitude of contracts, a laundry list of hit men, and an undertaker on the payroll. They subsequently unearthed abandoned cars, drained marshes for the dead bodies, and questioned countless others who were purported to be involved. And yet it all seemed all for naught. No one knew enough or else they weren’t talking.

But Martin Ferguson (Bogart) is not about to let his case against the wanted crime boss Albert Mendoza (Everett Sloane) crumble that easily. There’s got to be another way to nab him. The script from Martin Rackin spends the majority of the time filling in all the details. In fact, he probably spends too much time before finally tacking on Bogart`s last-minute hunch almost as if it were an afterthought.

Ultimately, The Enforcer could almost be called a Raoul Walsh picture as the veteran director and friend of Humphrey Bogart took over the project when the incumbent Bretaigne Windust was taken seriously ill early in production.

No disrespect to Mr. Windust at all but the film got a leg up thanks to Raoul Walsh who directed many of the film’s more volatile sequences, capturing the action with bullets flying and fists flailing — brought to us with his usual dynamism. That counteracts some of the faulty storytelling that bogs the plot down.

The narrative structure is strikingly similar to aspects of The Killers (1946) but it’s hardly executed in the same gripping fashion. In fact, the layering of the flashbacks is hardly ideal even if it feels canonically very typical of what we often term noir. By the film’s end, whether or not the story gets told feels beside the point but nevertheless, Walsh manages to provide us with a decently tense climax that satiates some of our clamorings for a quality ending.

The film’s better assets are a few of the supporting cast members that help to add color to the procedural. We are treated to the typical menagerie of seedy characters including Ted de Corsia, Jack Lambert, and Zero Mostel. But the kingpin of them all is Everett Sloane. I can’t decide if it’s simply an uncharacteristic role for the actor or simply a poor bit of casting for the role of the boss of Murder Inc. But no matter, it is what it is.

There are also no femme fatales and very few female characters to speak of at all. For one moment, a woman is important: one Angela Vetto. Otherwise, it’s pretty bleak going. Even Bogart is not particularly interesting per se but he is still Bogart, making his scenes worth watching at the very least because he’s more than believable in any incarnation as a tough guy.

3/5 Stars

99 River Street (1953)

99river4This is a Sam Fuller type crime film that’s not pretty, it’s full of gritty realism, and it ends up being an unassuming little gem that is a great joy. However, instead, this film comes from director Phil Karlson pairing him with John Payne. In film-noir, boxers always seem to take a center stage and it is never (or hardly ever) the champs. It’s the near misses or the bums. Ernie Driscoll (Payne) falls into this category as well.

After his big fight and an unfortunate conclusion to the bout, Driscoll is all washed up and he and his wife know it. He relives the moment in agony and dejectedly takes a job as a taxi driver, while he tries to figure out a future without boxing. You can tell his wife is fed up with this way of life, and she’s getting awfully snappy. Driscoll is unhappy, with his marriage going down the tubes, so his only encouragement comes down at the coffee counter with his buddy Stan and the bubbly actress Linda.

Things get worse when Ernie sees his wife with another man who also happens to be a real thug. Ernie is humiliated and looking for revenge, but on Linda’s bidding, he follows her to the theater because she is in desperate trouble. He obliges and yet again he feels like he’s been made a fool of. He cannot even seem to trust her.

Ernie wants desperately to get back into the ring, against the better judgment of his former manager. But he still is caught up in the whole mess with the cunning tough guy Victor Rawlins who stole Driscoll’s wife. The man shows how little the girl meant to him in comparison to the money and after getting a payoff for a fat load of diamonds, he waits for a freighter to take him away.

Linda wants to help Ernie after what happened on the stage, but she cannot stop Rawlins. It’s up to Ernie to duke it out on the docks, and it turns into a real brawl where he struggles not to get his bell completely rung after a gunshot to the chest. It’s the biggest fight of his career and somehow he wins. Really 99 River Street sounds like a run-of-the-mill noir, but Payne’s performance is rather good. It feels rather like Edward G. Robinson in Scarlet Street where no one seems to be on his side. However, he does ultimately have two solid allies in the faithful dispatcher Stan and the always vibrant Linda. Ernie finally follows Stan’s earlier advice and whispers sweet nothings into the ear of his love. It’s a happy ending for a noir.

The cast is rounded out nicely by a wonderful group of character actors including Brad Dexter, Jack Lambert, and Jay Adler who all work as the scum of the earth-dwelling in New York. The contrast of the bubbly Evelyn Keyes with the more aloof Peggie Castle was also very effective in the film. Now I need to see Kansas City Confidential as well.

4/5 Stars

Kiss me Deadly (1955)

kissmedeadly1Set in L.A., the film stars Ralph Meeker as the callous and often corrupt P.I. Mike Hammer, adapted from the Mickey Spillane novels. One night while driving, Hammer picks up a frightened woman who begs him to remember her. They are forced off the road by thugs and the girl is eventually killed. Hammer wakes up in the hospital to his secretary girlfriend Velda (Maxime Cooper). He makes it his priority to find out what the mysterious woman was talking about. He meets up with opposition and a femme fatale, but Hammer keeps on going using strong-armed tactics. He finally tracks down a mysterious whats-it but then discovers that Velda was kidnapped. In the final confrontation, he finally learns who he was looking for and he finds out the consequences of the Pandora’s box in the hands of a deadly female.

Out of most of the prominent works in the canon, Kiss Me Deadly is probably the pulpiest of L.A. Noir. The images are rather like a historical time capsule of 1950’s Los Angeles with locations on Wilshire Blvd., Sunset Blvd, and even near Angels Flight. It has crisp black and white cinematography with many noticeably low angles underlying the sleekness, but also the paranoia wrapped up in this story. It arguably has the queerest cold open and ending of any noir, which I cannot help but remember.

kissmedeadly2Ralph Meeker plays’s Mickey Spillane’s P.I. Mike Hammer to a tee. His husky voice perfectly fits the bravado of Hammer, a misogynistic brute prone to coercive action. Out of all the private gumshoes we’ve met, Hammer is probably the lowest — he’s a real scuzzball.

 Hammer throws women around like playthings and even his girl Velda has a double purpose. Yes, she is a lover, but she also makes a keen asset for business. As a P.I. specializing in divorce cases and marital problems, he’s not below giving business a little help. Velda willingly works on the husbands for him and he’s not above playing around with their wives. It’s a cozy little set-up.

kissmedeadly8That’s Hammer’s level and so when he gets caught up in the story of the mysterious girl Christina (Cloris Leachman), he has no idea what he gotten himself into. It’s a lot bigger than him and when the authorities throw around words like the Manhattan Project, Los Alamos, and Trinity he finally understands what its all about, but not really. In essence, Kiss Me Deadly is the quintessential film of paranoia in the Cold War nuclear age. We have a MacGuffin in the form of the mysterious Whats-it, but aside from that, we get few answers. Only a few deaths and some mighty kissmedeadly4destruction.

Kiss Me Deadly has some great characters aside from Hammer and Velma. The thugs are played by the perpetually cross-eyed Jack Elam and the glowering Jack Lambert which turns out to be great casting. Also, the lively Greek-American Nick (Nick Dennis) is a great deal of fun with his enthusiasm and a lot of “Vavavoom!”

It’s an interesting dilemma because I have never loved Kiss Me Deadly, but director Robert Aldrich developed a film that is so persistently interesting. It was a film that was supposed to ruin young viewers for its moral depravity, sensuality and who knows what else. This film literally screams “Remember Me” and honestly I will not be forgetting about it anytime soon.

3.5/5 Stars

Christina: You have only one real lasting love.

Hammer: Now who could that be?

Christina: You. You’re one of those self-indulgent males who thinks about nothing but his clothes, his car, himself. Bet you do push-ups every morning just to keep your belly hard. 

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