Crashout (1955)

Crashoutcrashout poster
Directed by Lewis R. Foster
Written by Hal E. Chester and Lewis R. Foster
1955/USA
Standard Productions
First viewing/YouTube

 

Van Morgan Duff: [to Quinn] I never did like you. You talk too fast and too much.

Noir Month ended with this violent prison break story.

Thirty-five convicts escape from prison.  Six of them survive to make it to a hideout near the prison known by their “leader” Van Morgan Duff (William Bendix).  All are serving life sentences for murder except Joe (Arthur Kennedy), who has been sentence to ten to twenty years for embezzlement.  Duff is wounded during the escape and close to death. He bribes the others to fetch a doctor and help him on the road by promising to share a large robbery take that he has hidden in the mountains.

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The six are hardened criminals, with episodic soft spots in a couple of them.  The group does not hesitate to kill witnesses in acts of shocking brutality for the time.  Later, friction sets them against each other.  With Luther Adler, William Talman, Gene Evans, and Marshall Thompson as the the other convicts and Beverly Michaels and Gloria Talbot as women who cross the mens’  path.

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There are few surprises in this routine jailbreak story except for the graphic (for the time) violence throughout.  The acting helps it along, though.  When will noir characters learn that you can’t trust a criminal even if he is a co-conspirator?  Especially if he is a co-conspirator.

Some 1941 comedies coming up!

 

The Well (1951)

The Wellwell poster
Directed by Leo C. Popklin and Russell Rouse
Written by Russell Rouse and Clarence Green
1951/USA
Cardinal Pictures
First viewing/Amazon Instant Video

“I later heard somewhere, or read, that Malcolm X telephoned an apology to the reporter. But this was the kind of evidence which caused many close observers of the Malcolm X phenomenon to declare in absolute seriousness that he was the only Negro in America who could either start a race riot-or stop one. When I once quoted this to him, tacitly inviting his comment, he told me tartly, “I don’t know if I could start one. I don’t know if I’d want to stop one.” ― Alex HaleyThe Autobiography of Malcolm X

I had some trepidation going in but I ended up really enjoying this independent “message” film.

As the film opens, we see a five-year-old African-American girl picking flowers in a meadow.  Suddenly, she slips into an overgrown hole, which turns out to be a long disused well.  When the girl does not arrive at school, the alarm is raised.  This is an ordinary small town with an integrated school where the races apparently live in peace.

Several people saw her in the company of a white stranger in a grey suit. A florist says the man talked to her outside the shop and then went in and bought her a bunch of violets. When finally located, he turns out to be Claude Packard (Harry Morgan), the nephew of a prominent contractor in town.  Claude says he stopped in town to visit his uncle on the way elsewhere to look for work in the mining industry.  He saw the little girl looking longingly in the florist’s window and bought her the flowers on an impulse.  He then helped her across the busy street and walked with her for a couple of blocks after which he lost track of her.  He never did see his uncle, who was away from the office.  The sheriff does not buy this story and arrests Claude.

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Then the rumors start.  The African-American community becomes convinced that the sheriff will release, or has already released, Claude because he is white.  The whites think that Claude is being framed.  Then the girl’s parents get into a mild altercation with the contractor during which he slips and is hurt.  Things spiral out of control with fights breaking out all over town and increasingly outlandish rumors spreading like wildfire. Finally, the mayor calls the state militia in fear of a race riot.

As quickly as it started, the trouble stops when a boy’s dog smells the little girl in the well and alerts his master.  The last third of the film is devoted to the suspenseful and detailed rescue attempt.

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The racial tensions explored in this film are really well done.  There is only one short “speech” made and that is just about how dangerous race riots are and how people on all sides of them get hurt.  We mainly just see the events.  And then, when that part is done, the rescue is really exciting.  The story gets down into the nitty gritty of how heavy equipment is used to dig a parallel shaft and the dangers to both the rescuers and the girl in doing this.  Recommended.

The Well was nominated for Academy Awards in the categories of Best Writing, Story and Screenplay and Best Film Editing.

 

 

 

Confidential Report (1955)

Confidential Report (AKA “Mr. Arkadin”)confidential report poster
Directed by Orson Welles
Written by Orson Welles
1955/France/Spain/Switzerland
Filmorsa/Cervantes Films/Sevilla Films, Mercury Productions/Bavaria Film
First viewing/Netflix rental

 

Gregory Arkadin: A scorpion wanted to cross a river, so he asked the frog to carry him. The frog refused because the scorpion would sting him. That would not be logical, explained the scorpion, because if he stung the frog they would both drown. So the frog agreed to carry the scorpion. Half way across, the frog felt a terrible pain – the scorpion had stung him. There is no logic in this, exclaimed the frog. I know, replied the scorpion, but I cannot help it – it is my nature.

Like Lady from Shanghai, the plot of Orson Welles’ film is all over the place.  Unlike that film, Confidential Report is not rescued by the acting and only partially redeemed by the style.

The story is mostly told in flashback as Guy Van Stratten relates his experiences with Arkadin to the dying Jacob Zouk (Akim Tamiroff), an old associate of the billionaire. Cigarette smuggler van Stratten (Robert Arden) and his girlfriend are on the docks at Naples when they witness the shooting of Bracco.  They are on hand to hear his dying words which are the names of two people that he says will be the couple’s fortune – Gregory Arkadin (Welles) and Sophia.

After he is released from jail on his smuggling conviction, Van Stratten proceeds to Spain where he hopes to meet Arkadin.  He figures the best way is through Arkadin’s daughter Raina, with whom he soon falls in love.  Arkadin is obsessed with Raina (Paola Mori, Welles’s then wife) and monitors her with spies at all times.  Finally, Arkadin offers van Stratten a huge fee to compile a report on himself, claiming he suffers from amnesia and can remember nothing prior to his arrival in Zurich with one suit and 200,000 Swiss Francs.

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Van Stratten then travels the world looking for clues to Arkadin’s identity and interviewing his former associates.  As those associates start mysteriously dropping like flies it is clear Van Stratten is in great danger.  With Mischa Auer as the ringmaster of a flea circus, an unrecognizable Michael Redgrave as a very weird antique store owner, and Katina Paxinou as Sophia.

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This is one of those multi-lingual films in which many of the characters are dubbed into English, a feature that does not improve one’s perception of the acting.  Robert Arden’s von Stratten does not appear to be dubbed by another actor, but his may be the worst performance in the film.  Anger seems to be his favorite emotion to the exclusion of any subtlety.  The story is confusing and episodic with many Wellesian anecdotes and tongue-in-cheek pronouncements.   Even I thought the movie had its moments though, and many like it much more than I.

The film has been re-constructed several times.  I watched the Criterion Collection’s “Comprehensive Version”.

Orson Welles dubbed the voices of several of the supporting male characters.

Clip – A Georgian toast to friendship

Cry of the City (1948)

Cry of the Citycry of the city poster
Directed by Robert Siodmak
Written by Richard Murphy from the novel “The Chair for Martin Rome” by Henry Edward Helseth
1948/USA
Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
First viewing/Twentieth Century Fox Cinema Archives DVD

“It’s about time law enforcement got as organized as organized crime.” Rudolph Giuliani 

Robert Siodmak again shows why he was the master of film noir style.

Police detective Lt. Candela (Victor Mature) and Martin Rome (Richard Conte) both grew up in Italian families on the mean streets of New York.  As the story begins, Rome is in the hospital being treated for bullet wounds incurred in a shoot-out during which a police officer was killed.  He is visited by his girl, the Madonna-visaged Tina (Debra Paget in her screen debut).  Later, a shady attorney shows up and tries to get him to confess to a jewel heist in exchange for a large pay-off.  Rome refuses and the attorney threatens to finger Tina as the female accomplice involved in the heist.  Lt. Candela is on the case trying to locate the girl.  His friendly relationship with Rome’s family helps and he also tries to straighten out Rome’s younger brother Tony.

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Martin is so concerned about Tina that he escapes from the prison hospital even though he is still gravely injured.  He promptly bumps off the lawyer.  He is in such bad condition that he turns to ex-girlfriend Brenda (Shelley Winters) for help in getting a shady doctor. Brenda also locates the real accomplice in the jewel heist, the scary Swedish masseuse Rose Given (Hope Emerson).  The rest of the film is devoted to Lt. Candela’s relentless pursuit of Tony.

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I thought the crime story was pretty routine.  It is done with such pure noir style that the film is worth a watch, though.  I liked the parallels drawn between Candela and Rome, down to similar injuries by the end of the film.  Hope Emerson is awesome as the masseuse!

Clip – Shelley Winters – cinematography by Lloyd Ahern (sorry about print quality of clip – DVD print is beautiful)

 

The Girl on the Bridge (1951)

The Girl on the Bridgegirl on the bridge poster
Directed by Hugo Haas
Written by Hugo Haas and Arnold Phillips
1951/USA
Hugo Haas Productions
First viewing/Amazon Watch Instant

 

Tagline: She’s Man-Bait and Murder ! (most misleading tagline ever)

This modest B picture has a kind of appealing sweetness despite its flaws.

Kindly old jeweler David (Haas) spots beautiful Clara (Beverly Michaels) standing on a bridge and staring despondently at the water.  He tells her things will look better in the morning.  Clara drops by his shop the next day to tell him he was right.  She has her nine-month-old daughter Judy in tow.  One of the reasons Clara was feeling low is because she is an unwed mother who has just lost her babysitter.  David has a lot of experience with children and offers to mind the child in the shop while Clara is at work.  He is drawn to the little family because he lost his own during the Holocaust.

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Clara’s boss offers her a job working from home if she will move to San Diego with him.  David proposes a sexless marriage to him as an alternative.  Clara agrees and develops a sincere affection for him.  For awhile they are all happy and Clara announces she is expecting David’s baby.

Since this is noir, good times cannot last long.  Judy’s father Mario, a pianist, returns.  His no-good cousin spots Judy at the shop and Mario is soon having a chat with David.  He refuses to take the money David offers him to clear out.  But the cousin has blackmail on the mind.  David kills him during an argument but Mario is tried for the murder.  The guilt slowly drives David insane.

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Clara shows David her dance routine – the only even slightly risque scene in the film

Other than Haas’s performance, the acting in this movie is nothing to write home about and even Haas goes over the top by the end.  But I thought the story was touching in a peculiar way.

I had never heard of Haas until I came across this film in my research for Noir Month. Before World War II, he was a famous comedian/director in his native Czechoslovakia. He fled to the United States when the Nazis invaded and got work in Hollywood, mostly as villains.  He then became an independent producer churning out low-budget second features, mostly featuring himself as older men attracted to young women a la The Blue Angel.  He was quickly dubbed “the foreign Ed Wood”.  Based on The Girl on the Bridge alone, I can say that characterization was unfair.  No one would ever confuse this with an Ed Wood movie.

Clip – the murder – Cinematography by Paul Ivano

 

Murder by Contract (1958)

Murder by ContractMurder by Contract poster
Directed by Irving Lerner
Written by Ben Simcoe
1958/USA
Orbit Productions/Columbia Pictures Corporation
First viewing/Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics I DVD

Claude: The way i see it, Harry, everybody lives off everybody else.

This quirky little film is worth a look.

Claude (Vince Edwards) has his eye on a house that costs $23,000.  He has $523 in the bank and makes about $75 a week on his job.  He does the math and decides to try out for a job as a contract killer, a career to which he turns out to be ideally suited.  He has no record, doesn’t write anything down,  and has a distaste for guns.  He is soon impressing his boss with his efficiency.

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After several successful jobs, Claude is sent to Los Angeles for a contract on a witness who is set to testify against his boss.  He is met at the railway station by two minders who never leave his side.  He takes his time planning the hit.  First he wants to see the Pacific Ocean, go to the zoo, etc.  This makes the minders very nervous but they have no choice but to go along.

When Claude finally gets around to casing the house where his victim lives he learns there are a couple of complications.  First, the victim is a woman.  Claude thinks he should double his fee.  Second, the house is heavily guarded by police and the victim is so terrified she never takes a step out the door.

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This shoestring budget noir was shot in seven days.  Although it is played very straight, the situations are so far-fetched that they made me smile.  The incongrously peppy music, Vince Edwards’s code of conduct, the whining minders,  everything contributes to a good time.

Trailer – cinematography by Lucien Ballard

Martin Scorsese on Murder by Contract

The Verdict (1946)

The Verdictverdict poster
Directed by Don Siegel
Written by Peter Milne from a novel by Israel Zangwill
1946/USA
Warner Bros.
First viewing/Warner Archive DVD

 

Supt. George Edward Grodman: I feel as if I were drinking at my own wake.

This Sidney Greensreet/Peter Lorre locked room mystery didn’t grab me.

The story opens in 19th Century London with Superintendent George Grodman (Greenstreet) of Scotland Yard witnessing the execution of a man he helped to convict. Almost immediately his bitter rival Supt. Buckley (George Colouris) brings him the missing alibi witness that establishes the man’s innocence.  Grodman is forced to retire and Buckley takes his job.

At Grodman’s house, we meet his friends:  an artist with a taste for the macabre, mine-owning lout Arthur Kendall whose aunt was the murder victim, and a reformist Parliamentarian who is Kendall’s sworn enemy.  Naturally, these three all live in the same boarding house.  After the party breaks up, we see Kendall arguing with music-hall singer Lottie Rawson (Joan Lorring) about some fake jewelry he gave her.

The next day, the landlady finds Kendall’s door locked and cannot rouse him.  Suspecting foul play, she calls Grodman and the two discover Kendall’s murdered body.  All hypotheses on how the killer could have entered and exited the locked room prove impossible.  The rest of the story follows the inept Buckley as he investigates the murder with occasional help from Grodman.

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I think it’s a stretch to call this murder mystery a film noir.  It’s competently made but didn’t make me care about the outcome.  It does give viewers the opportunity to see director Don Siegel’s (Dirty Harry)  first feature film.

Clip – Joan Lorring sings “Give Me a Little Bit”

The Reckless Moment (1949)

The Reckless Momentreckless moment poster
Directed by Max Ophüls
Written by Mel Dinelli, Sidney Garson, et al from the Ladies Home Journal story “The Blank Wall”
1949/USA
Columbia Pictures Corporation
First viewing/Korean import DVD
#226 of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die

Martin: Hell is other people…

The List introduced me to this film and for that I am grateful.

Lucia Harper’s (Joan Bennett) husband is in Berlin at Christmas and she is left to head the household of her father, seventeen-year old daughter Bea and younger sons.  They are a respectable, tight-knit middle class family.  Clearly Lucia is not used to making important decisions on her own nor does she want to bother her husband.  Her daughter has taken up with a much older man, Ted Darby  and Joan feels she must break it off.  She confronts the man and he offers to stop seeing Bea in exchange for a pay-off.  Instead, Lucia goes home and tells Bea what Ted said.  Bea meets him, they argue, and Bea pushes him, causing him to hit his head on an anchor and, unbeknownst to her, killing him.

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In the morning, Lucia finds the corpse.  In her panic, she takes the body out to sea in a motor boat (they live in Balboa) and sinks it with the anchor.  The body is soon discovered. Then bad guy Nagel, an associate of the deceased, gets his hands on Bea’s love letters to Ted and sends his buddy Martin Donnelly (James Mason) to threaten Lucia that they will go to the police with the letters unless she pays them $5,000 more or less immediately.

But Lucia doesn’t have the money and can’t think of a way to get it without involving her husband, which she still is unwilling to do.  Fortunately for her, Martin develops an affection for her.  Now they are both in great danger from the ruthless Nagel.

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So far I have found Ophül’s American films a mixed bag but I really liked this one.  The acting is first rate and the story is interesting and beautifully filmed. This part was totally against type for the usually seductive Bennett and she was excellent in it.  Mason is Mason.  I don’t think I have seen him with a bit of an Irish brogue in his accent before.

I have to admit I was frustrated with the ending, however. I felt like a certain undeserving party got let off the hook too easily.  Maybe I should have worked for the Hayes office! Actually, I don’t know how they got away with this in 1949.

Fan trailer – montage of clips and stills (spoilers)

 

 

Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

Kiss Me DeadlyKiss Me Deadly Poster
Directed by Robert Aldrich
Written by A.I. Bezzerides based on the novel by Mickey Spillane
1955/USA
Parklane Pictures Inc.
Repeat viewing/Netflix rental
#308 of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die

 

Velda: You want to avenge the death of your dear friend. How touching. How sweet. How nicely it justifies your quest for the great whatsit.

I still don’t exactly understand how the conspiracy was supposed to work here but it doesn’t matter much anyway. Style is the thing and this move is full to over-flowing with it.

Tough-guy private eye Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) is driving down a lonely road in his ultra-cool convertible at night when he is waved down by a frantic blonde, Christine (Cloris Leachman in her big-screen debut).  She takes one look at the car and has Mike’s number “You have only one real lasting love – you.”   Christine is clearly terrified.  She has just escaped from an asylum and is naked under her coat.  She tells Mike to forget her if he is able to deliver her to her bus stop.  If not she pleads, “Remember me.”

They do not make it to the bus stop.  The car is waylaid by some mysterious men and the two are taken to a secret location where they are evidently pumped full of drugs.  Mike has hazy, hallucinatory dreams.  When the men are through with them they take the car and push it off a cliff.  Christine dies but Mike survives and wakens from a coma to the ministrations of his secretary/lover Velda and the unwanted attentions of Lt. Murphy, who takes away Mike’s P.I. license and gun permit.

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Mike decides that, if Christine knew something, it must be valuable and, ignoring his lack of official sanction, investigates it.  He meets many shady characters and witnesses throughout the very convoluted plot.  Suffice it to say that he comes to blows with most of them and tortures the rest. The exception is Christine’s roommate Lily, who is afraid of a similar fate.  To her he gives shelter.  Otherwise, the mayhem continues until the spectacular climax that closes the film.  With Albert Dekker and Jack Elam as bad guys and Percy Hilton as a pathologist.

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As an exercise in pure B-movie style with all the stops pulled out, this is hard to beat.  It was hard to select stills.  They are all so awesome.  But they don’t fully capture the visual artistry of the film with its crazy angles and roaming camera.  The dialogue is a pulpy delight and the delivery of the actors matches it perfectly.  I imagine that Godard and Tarantino got a lot of inspiration from this one.  Highly recommended for those that like this kind of thing.

Trailer – cinematography by Ernest Lazlo

Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)

Sorry, Wrong Numbersorry wrong number poster
Directed by Anatole Litvak
Written by Lucille Fletcher
1948/USA
Hal Wallis Productions

Repeat viewing/Amazon Instant Video

 

Henry Stevenson: Besides, what does a dame like you want with a guy like me?

It is mighty tricky to build a movie around telephone conversations.

The wealthy Leona Stevenson (Barbara Stanwyck) is a professional invalid, lounging in bed all day with her books and bonbons.  She goes into hysterics and has chest pain when her formidable will is challenged in any way and rules her husband Henry (Burt Lancaster) with an iron hand.

On this particular evening (the story plays out in real time, with flashbacks), her attendants have the night off, on the agreement that Henry will be home at 6 p.m.  He is late, however, and Leona incessantly calls his office number but it is always busy.  She asks an operator to put the call through and overhears two hired killers discussing a murder to take place that night at 11:15.

The increasingly upset Leona tries to get the operator to trace the call, to get the police to investigate, etc. with no luck.  In the meantime, the phone is ringing off the hook with calls from a Mr. Evans asking for Henry.

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Leona simply cannot bear staying alone in the house.  She tries to find Henry through his secretary and is directed to his old girlfriend Sally.  Then, after she gets a telegram saying Henry has gone to a convention to Baltimore, she calls her doctor.  Finally, Mr. Evans leaves a disturbing message for Henry.  All these people fill in more of the story, segueing into flashback as they tell Leona what they know.  None of it is reassuring.

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This is Barbara Stanwyck’s movie and is an acting tour de force.  She does nothing to make Leona in the least sympathetic but is the epitome of whining, controlling womanhood and very believable.  I though Burt Lancaster was a bit miscast as the henpecked husband but he does his best with the part.

The movie is the expansion of an excellent one-woman half-hour radio drama containing only Leona’s conversations with service people such as the operator, the police, a hospital nurse etc. Naturally, this would not make a film.  I can’t think of any other way that the filmmakers could have retained the basic premise but the movie does come off at times as gimmicky.  That said, it is well worth seeing for Stanwyck’s performance.

Barbara Stanwyck was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for her performance in Sorry, Wrong Number.

Trailer (spoilers) – cinematography by Sol Polito

The original radio play with Agnes Moorehead