Border Incident (1949): Mann and Alton Enhanced Docu-Drama Noir

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A voice of God with a certain newsreel ethos sets the scene. California’s Imperial Valley. An area renowned for its robust agricultural industry. The Bracero Program, that brilliant reflection of U.S.-Mexican relations during the war years and beyond. However, if this scenario sounds too simplistic and squeaky clean, it soon gets slightly more intriguing in consideration of the border.

You have illegals jumping the fence to get into the U.S. and numerous egregious perpetrators of human suffering and injustice looking to take advantage of the situation by any means possible. Indigenous Bandidos are looking to murder and pillage a la The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948) and their savagery terrorizes the countryside. Then, there is the clandestine trafficking of labor, another real-world problem portrayed in cinematic terms.

Because Border Incident is pronounced a composite case of real life and hard facts. Like T-Men before it, the introduction leaves me rather skeptical. It does feel like reality is still being sculpted, not only for the movies but in a manner that the heroes and villains can become more easily definable.

Instead of a trail of counterfeit bills, it’s all about finding out the route of illegal transportation into the country. But regardless of my qualms, it’s extraordinary for Ricardo Montalban to get such a hefty and prominent part in a picture. There’s no question he’s the standout, at least as far as the heroes are concerned, playing a brave and charismatic Mexican agent, Pablo Rodriguez, who is tasked with uncovering the smuggling at its source. His American counterpart is American Jack Bearnes (George Murphy) who is brave but hardly as compelling.

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There are, however, plenty of villains to fawn over as with any respectable noir. Charles McGraw is an ornery enforcer who takes no flack and pushes the impoverished Mexicans around like chattel. Being wary of the border patrol in Indio, he’s not above dumping their cargo in the Salton Sea if they have to. It’s a chilling illustration of his disreputable nature.

Jack Lambert is always game as a sneering heavy and Howard Da Silva also has a mug made for villainy. However, in this case, he’s actually a big deal — the untouchable mastermind of this entire operation — it’s the men below him who get their hands dirty.

While Rodriguez is embroiled right in the pit of the harrowing operation, befriending a sympathetic countryman named Juan Garcia (James Mitchell), it is the American agent who works from the top down; he gets an alias as a criminal on the lamb and makes contact with the big man. They look to set up a mutually beneficial business transaction, a load of visas for heaps of cash.

If the narrative structure leaves something to be desired, there’s nevertheless an impeccable framework for Mann to implement his unsentimental brand of filmmaking. In a textbook example, there’s a moment where Lamber’s fingers get crammed in a truck window — as the braceros try to flee — only to get pushed off the speeding vehicle and potentially hurtled to his death. The uncompromising imagery is only to be surpassed when a wounded border agent is squashed to smithereens by a tractor, literally dwarfing the frame. It’s this sense of suffocation even in wide open spaces.

The glorious tight angled close-ups are only one facet to the film, accentuating this sense of constraint just as the extraordinary tones of John Alton, in essence, cloak the space in a noose of supreme darkness. For a film about men trying to flee authorities crossing cultural borders, there’s hardly a better visual method of conveyance possible.

Raw Deal is still the gold standard of Anthony Mann film noir with T-Men and then Border Incident falling a rung below. Mostly because the mechanism created for the plot feel flat, and yet everything Mann and Alton touch really is dynamite, with the most gorgeous tones, equally stylistically dynamic. It’s a killer one-two punch and all business as usual for director and cinematographer.

On this front, as a merely technical and formalistic endeavor, Border Incident is superb and a darn good docu-noir. In the closing moments, Montalban gets swallowed up by quicksand, fighting for his life against adversaries, and fistfights and gunshots abound on all sides. These lightning rods of drama are appreciated.

Unfortunately, it keeps the same framework that now in present days looks more propagandistic and heavy-handed then authentic storytelling. We find ourselves with a certain rhetoric about living under the protection of two great republics and the bounty of God Almighty.

Of course, there’s no mention of the Zoot Suit Riots and the perpetration of racial violence, because that was too close to home and does not fit into a handy framework for a public service announcement storyline such as this. Instead of chalking all problems up to cold, capitalistic men in suits with greedy underlings, we must look at a social system that breeds bigotry as much as it does inequality. Admittedly, I am not one with the right answers but nonetheless, I am curious to know how we move forward from a film like this.

3.5/5 Stars

 

Bend of The River (1952)

Bend_of_the_River_-_1952-_Poster.pngIn Bend of The River, there are glimpses of the man we knew before the war. Joking and smiling with that same face. The affable charm and so on. But it’s also starkly different.

In this picture, James Stewart is on horseback leading a wagon train preoccupied with farming, cattle, ranching, and biscuits. His name is Glyn Mclyntock and this is the life he has crafted for himself.

Of course, when another man comes along to ride with them, a man named Emerson Cole (Arthur Kennedy), they trade glances and instantly know something about the other. Their names precede them as Glyn was once an infamous Missouri border raider and Cole had his own run-ins with the law for similar crimes.

However, no one knows about Mclyntock here and he’s bent on going straight. But with them together we have the perfect case study to test out the theories of one of the leaders of the caravan Jeremy Bailes. He believes a man can never change. “When an apple’s rotten there’s nothing you can do but throw it away or it will spoil the whole barrel.”

But these past sins as they were, give each man a time-tested wisdom about the real West. In one such scenario, they knowingly make talk to a pretty gal about bird calls coming from Orioles indigenous to Canada though they realize at that very moment some Shoshone are circling their camp. They’re ready for them.

The journey continues proving reminiscent of the pilgrims of old and that’s what these pioneers are, pilgrims of the Pacific Northwest. Occupied with grand visions of how they will cultivate the land and help build a prospering life for their families. But there’s also talk of stocking up enough food for the first winter and fears of the impending snows. Supplies haven’t been sent ahead yet nor have they gotten any word from Portland — the town where their supplies were supposed to come from.

It quickly becomes apparent following a return trip that the town has been swept by a frenzy of Gold Fever and things are noticeably different. We are conveniently reminded that it was Man who spoiled the land, tainting it with their many vices including pillaging and killing.

The part of the professional gambler in town — one Trey Hendricks — features Rock Hudson in a growing role as the pretty boy. He hasn’t quite reached true stardom yet but to have him in the picture is another stroke of luck in a project that is positively stacked with talent.

Julie Adams (billed as Julia) plays the main love interest, Laura, who is wounded by an arrow and laid up in the town of Bend only to fall for Cole who quickly took on a position at Trey’s establishment. As Glyn has no rightful claim to her, it looks like the two lovebirds will be married.

Mclyntock hires a group of wage laborers to help him peddle the goods back into the mountains as the riverboat they used before can only get them so far. The most memorable of the lot certainly include Harry Morgan, Royal Dano, and Jack Lambert. What’s more, they have no firm allegiances and their compensation amounts to a meager grubstake.

The uninhibited rage that burns in Stewart’s eyes with insurrection afoot becomes increasingly apparent and he’s about ready to administer a deathblow with one stab of a knife only to be stopped by the shriek of dismay from Laura. It brings him back to his senses but in no way ends his ordeal. Not by a long shot.

When a band of miners in desperate need of provisions is willing to pay an astronomical sum for the goods it all but seals the deal; we have a mutiny on our hands. That’s not altogether surprising; it’s how it goes down that proves a jolt.

But that trademark tension of Anthony Mann just will not leave us be and we find ourselves continually harried to the end of the picture because this mission of mercy is our mission. But again, we are reminded of what man is capable of left to his own devices. Avarice is a deadly beast and it brings out a fellow’s true colors.

Stewart is cast out with no horse and no gun. But he’s relentless in his pursuit. The objective clear and he makes sure his foes know it without a shadow of a doubt.

“You’ll be seeing me. You’ll be seeing me. Every time you bed down for the night, you’ll look back to the darkness and wonder if I’m there. And some night, I will be. You’ll be seeing me!”

First, it’s one man. Then two shots in the night and finally the confrontation that we’ve all been waiting for. Glyn reemerges to take back the supplies aided by Trey, Laura, and Mr. Baile. The bullets fly. The bodies fall into the stream. Horses scamper away. And our two stars have it out for good.

Mann captures it all for the maximum effect, the most striking visuals being contorted faces in the throes of hand-to-hand combat first in a wagon and finally, the bedraggled forms reeling in the depths of the water. It’s so visceral and physical even alarmingly so. But it gets to us.

Is this a western or what? My goodness. The final shots are so Hollywood — the epitome of its Technicolor glories with everyone getting together and evil conquered — but all this cannot quite rub out the images that preceded it. They are blistering with unmistakable antagonism.

Stewart’s performance might seem unprecedented and certainly, it was for all its psychological torment but his characterization is indebted to Arthur Kennedy who draws upon a vitality of his own. Together they make Bend of the River a tale well worth remembering.

4/5 Stars

Stars in My Crown (1950)

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It speaks not only to the man but to this film, that Joel McCrea rated Stars in My Crown among his personal favorites. (Hint: It’s not because of the imminent reunion of two cast members in Gunsmoke). The story is framed by the nostalgic recollections of an old man and it’s a singular story in the way that one life is a story. There are constant offshoots, revelations, and daily interactions with other human narratives.

John’s life (Dean Stockwell) could have been very different; it could have been drama because he was orphaned at a young age. Except he had Parson Gray (McCrea) and Mrs. Gray (Ellen Drew). Much like this film, his life was generally a joyous affair growing up as a young lad. Certainly, it was not without its roadblocks, disagreements, or minor quarrels but what remains is generally uplifting and good.

Stars in My Crown for much of its run is a vignette-driven tale but that proves to be the utmost blessing for this particular film. That inevitably brings us to Joel McCrea and why he must have relished this part. He’s a man of faith and no shame-faced Christian. There’s no denying his spiritual leanings. Still, while he’s not a spineless pushover, there’s not a condemning word that leaves his mouth either.

What keeps him upright and a pillar of the community is a quiet boldness and a genuine care for his parishioners. But that means not simply calling on the people who enter into his church on Sundays. I’ve heard it said before that it’s easy for anyone to love people who are just like them or who they like already.

What’s truly a test of someone’s heart is whether or not they are willing to reach out to those who seem alien and contrary to their station in life. The Parson is such a man. Not only does he care for the physically sick or the self-proclaimed churchgoers who are sick in the soul, he is there for those on the fringes too.

He faithfully calls on his boisterous war buddy (Alan Hale Sr. in his final role) who is larger-than-life with a strapping clan of sons (including James Arness) and a penchant for joking about religion. He’s waiting for the Parson to get God to plow his fields for him.

The good-natured Gray gently ribs him about his coming to church. But what strikes me is the worth he sees in his friend. In one resounding instance, when the local gamekeeper Famous (Juano Hernandez) has his land trampled by local bigots, it’s not the Christian folk but Jed who immediately comes to his aid. His beneficiary rightfully proclaims with all candor, “You’re a real Christian.”

Parson Gray’s rounds never seem to cease though in one instance they meet with opposition. Dr. Harris (Lewis Stone) has long been the town’s apothecary but with his ailing health, his intelligent yet rather brusque son (James Mitchell) is taking over the family business. Though more than capable, what the younger fellow is lacking is a genial bedside manner, at least upon first glance.

He does show a certain sensitivity to the local school teacher (Amanda Blake) and the certain tightness in Mitchell’s voice is stellar for articulating the feelings of a man who is hardly unfeeling — he just has trouble opening up. In fact, he’s adamant that the religious leader stays out of his way because he sees no place for such ritualism when he has practical science to help people.

The days roll ever onward with young boys lazily kicked back in a hay wagon surmising what they’d do if they were God. Namely, have it always be summer. Even Christmas would be in summer. Another time a Medicine Man (Charles Kemper) and his Carnival Show pay a visit and bring the town out of the woodwork for an evening of magic tricks and showmanship.

Then come the bad times when the typhoid hits and people are dropping like flies. First, John is sick then a whole host of others. The Doctor criticizes Gray for potentially infecting the entire population of school children and for the first time in a long time we see the normally even-tempered man angered.

However, the Parson is man enough to consider that he’s wrong because he very well could have been. He’s also humble enough to give the doctor room to work. For the sake of the people, he becomes isolated and as a result poor, bereft of his usual resources. Because all he had was out of charity and the tangible blessings of those around him.

He even goes so far as closing the church for the first Sunday service as far back as anyone can remember. It soon becomes evident how very humble and meager his portion is without the bulwark of community around him.

But it’s one of those things, out of the Parson’s seemingly selfless act comes a reciprocal act from the young doctor — the man who shed his rough exterior and became one with the people knowing full well all their suffering as well as their joys. It was this chance in the trenches with the lack of the sleep and onslaught of the slow fever where he realized there was a need for something else that he never thought was lacking before. If Ordet (1955) has the most striking resurrection scene that I can recall perhaps Stars in My Crown has the most gorgeously understated.

The final stand that the Parson is compelled to take is also weighty with significance. The townsfolk have repeatedly threatened Famous and now they’ve reached the end of the road. Stringing him up and taking his property is all that’s left to do.

When they leave that burning cross and the note, cloaked in white like cowards, it somehow brought the same realization that floods over me far too often. In some ways, this film is meant to be so archaic, reminiscent of a bygone era far removed from our present. And yet as much as we might try and move away, it sadly remains relevant.

So the Parson goes to Famous’s home alone knowing what is coming for them. He forgoes the guns of his good buddy Jed. That’s not his way now. Instead, he speaks to them resolutely as they get ready to take Famous away. He confronts them with the man’s own words and in the most piercingly moving moment of the entire picture we see how one man can be so selfless in the face of so much hatred. He can boast so many riches even if his worldly possessions seem totally inconsequential. His character speaks for itself.

Years later Atticus Finch would have a confrontation akin to this one and yet it came to an impasse. Here the Parson is able to speak the truth into each of these men’s lives and make them human again. All thanks to Famous.

So while the picture might fall too easily back into place (Klansman aren’t rooted out forthwith for instance) there’s no begrudging such a gentle and virtuous film its closure. Because these are as much the fond memories of a young boy grown old as they are the tale of one man who left an indelible impact on a life and on a community. I’m reminded that perhaps a church is not so much a building as it is a people. Though the picture is capped by the proud moment where the Parson sees his old war buddy welcomed into the fold, I would like to think he doesn’t see that as the ultimate victory.

If anything his life reflects the outpouring of an existence lived outside of the Sunday framework. He does not have compartmentalized faith — the kind of religiosity that makes people hypocritical and prideful. I can respect a man like that even if he doesn’t pack a gun.

4.5/5 Stars

I am thinking today of that beautiful land
I shall reach when the sun goeth down;
When through wonderful grace by my Savior I stand,
Will there be any stars in my crown?

Will there be any stars, any stars in my crown
When at evening the sun goeth down?
When I wake with the blest in the mansions of rest
Will there be any stars in my crown?

In the strength of the Lord let me labor and pray,
Let me watch as a winner of souls,
That bright stars may be mine in the glorious day,
When His praise like the sea billow rolls.

O what joy it will be when His face I behold,
Living gems at his feet to lay down!
It would sweeten my bliss in the city of gold,
Should there be any stars in my crown.

Day of the Outlaw (1959)

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Filmed in Central Oregon on the eve of winter, Day of The Outlaw displays gorgeously fluffy photography as the snow covers the ground. With the leading part anchored by Robert Ryan, I could not but help recall his portrayal in Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground (1951), another project that made liberal use of immaculate winter exteriors. Likewise, that was only the backdrop for a tough and unfeeling world.

In this particular instance, Andre De Toth’s picture has grudges burning deep under the surface making relationships generally contentious. The story is as old as the western itself. At least its central themes make themselves known straight away. The conflict is between homesteaders and cattle ranchers embodied by two men. The aptly named town of Bitters, Wyoming has recently seen more folks settling down there. One of them named Hal Crane is intent on putting up barbed wire fencing to measure off the land for his new homestead for he and his wife.

As always, there are two sides to every field and the epically named Blaise Starrett (Ryan) is vehemently against the wire being put up because it will keep his cattle from roaming free across the land. He hasn’t minced words about what he’ll do if Crane tries it. He’s equally bitter, and he has some right to be because the way he sees it, he was one of the men who tamed the land with blood, sweat, and tears. The farmers are the ones who settled down in his shadow and now look to shoulder their way into what he has made.

However, what makes the story even more embittering is the fact that Blaise once had a thing for the other man’s wife, Helen (Tina Louise). We witness them as they meet in the general store. And at first, they give off nothing away. All that’s there is seemingly a mutual distaste. But they sit down to a nice neighborly cup of coffee alone and something else becomes evident.

She starts the conversation and makes a cold observation, “You want another man’s wife but the man has to be dead before you take her.” It’s obviously a twisted David & Bathsheba triangle. It’s about to come to its boiling point when the two men look to have it out in the local bar. Finally, a moment of violent catharsis is at hand as a lone bottle rolls down the bar to an inevitable end.

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But in a bit of serendipitous (or not so serendipitous timing) they’re bloodbath gets postponed by the entrance of a band of renegades who have just ridden into town fleeing the Cavalry for some unnamed crimes. Time to put all that we assumed the film to be about on hold and do an about-face.

Their fearless leader, a former Union officer Jack Bruhn (Burl Ives) is a surprisingly honorable man who vows to the people of Bitters that no harm will come to their women. He also forebays his men ffrom drinking, commanding the proprietor to get them some grub and lock away his liquor. Ives had a key role in the William Wyler western epic from the year prior The Big Country (1958). His performance here is fascinating for its nuance.

Jack Lambert is the quintessential baddy in my book right up there with Lee Van Cleef and he shows up in fine form here joined by a crew of other sneering malcontents just waiting to go crazy. You can see the pressure rising yet again. However, the fact that much of the film is confined to interiors makes the moments that we break out into the open that much more impactful and the imagery is equally rewarding.

One particular highlight is a fist fight in the muddy slush where Blaise puts up a good struggle but ultimately gets wailed on as an example to everyone else. Simultaneously the women folk fear for their well-being trying to make a break for it and a little boy is taken as a hostage. Another sequence involves a whirling dance hall gathering of forced fun. Bruhn’s men get riled up with the ladies but as their leader sees it, this is a safety valve to blow off steam, far better than more sordid alternatives.

Everyone knows this cannot go on forever and so Starrett agrees to lead them in their escape — a heroic act to remove the men from the town he helped civilize. The final ascent into the mountains to traverse a tortuous path through to the other side proves treacherous on multiple accounts.  While the ending might be yet another slow burn, it does the picture justice even if a fuller, happier ending would have been appreciated by contemporary audiences. We are given enough.

The picture successfully suggests that Tina Louise is far more than Ginger in Gilligan’s Island. She certainly leaves an impression. At first, I didn’t realize David Nelson was even in the picture. Besides, his brother was the true matinee idol and yet to watch him in this oater you see the tender-hearted candor in the older Nelson. Perhaps his father was trying to make both of his sons into western heroes in Rio Bravo (1959) and Day of the Outlaw respectively. Though this outing hardly gets as much respect, it’s nearly as entertaining.

Phillip Yordan’s work on the script does a fine job of creating numerous points of contention that get placed right on top of each other, tweaking the expectations of the audience nicely. What looks like a straightforward feud over a woman soon becomes far more volatile as old enemies must join forces to protect their town against the invaders. And yet the invaders are led by a man who has a sense of conscience. So the ticking time bombs are set off with his cronies hemming and hawing, private resentment still lingering under the surface, and a gunshot wound sustained by Bruhl threatening to put him out of commission permanently.

Day of the Outlaw is a genuinely satiating effort from De Toth that brims with brooding energy supplied by the perennial outsider Robert Ryan and aided by gorgeous snowscapes and a script brought to life by an engaging ensemble. If there is any one thing that hampers the picture, it could probably be chocked down to budget restraints. The production ran out of money in the end and so De Toth wrapped up filming prematurely.

That’s what makes it even more phenomenal the movie boasts undisputed quality as a truly unheralded western classic. Just as my estimation of Robert Ryan rises after every subsequent performance displaying his at times tortured and dogged resolve, I have a newfound respect for Tina Louise and their director. This would be Andre De Toth’s final time helming a western and there’s little doubt he went out with a winner.

4/5 Stars

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