Crime Films

DONALD E. WESTLAKE writing as RICHARD STARK – The Seventh. Parker #7. Avon, paperback; 1985. First published by Pocket (#50244) as a paperback original, 1966. Reprinted as The Split (Gold Medal D1997, circa 1968). Also reprinted by the University of Chicago Press, trade paperback, 2009, under its original title. Film: MGM, 1968, as The Split, with Jim Brown as McClain (not “Parker”).

   This is the first solo Parker novel that I’ve read in a long time, perhaps as long as 40 years. The one I read back then was OK but not great. To put it as succinctly and honestly as I can, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I thought I was going to. I think it was simply too terse, too hard-boiled, with no joy to it and absolutely np characterization to speak of.

   I’m quite a bit older now, but it didn’t make much of a difference. When I read The Seventh earlier this week, I found I had exactly the same problems with as I did with that earlier one. Some thoughts follow, some fully formed, but others I’m still thinking about. (I won’t tell you which are which.)

   First of all, I think that Parker’s adventures need someone like Alan Grofield, his sometimes companion in crime, in them go given them some much needed balance. The love of Grofield’s life is actually the stage, but what he also is is a devout thief. What he has that Parker doesn’t is personality. Enough to make his own capers go down very very smoothly, and his pair-ups with Parker a lot more fun to read. One note sambas may be fine with some people, but they’re not for me.

   We may as well take The Seventh as an example of Parker on his own. This is a heist story with a bit of a twist. The heist goes off just fine. It’s the aftermath that the book is all about. It begins with Parker in desperate need for some ready cash, and thus agrees to work with six other men to steal a small fortune from a football game’s box office while the game is going on.

   Each of the seven hole up for a while, some in pairs, some alone. Parker, who is holding all of the money, is one of the latter, save for a steady bed partner (female) he has picked up somewhere.

   After a few days, he goes out for cigarettes. He comes back and finds the girl dead, pinned to the headboard of their bed with a sword. And — you guessed it — the money is gone. Did the killer just happen to find the money by chance, or was he after the money and the girl was only collateral damage? Both are likely possibilities. Either way, Parker is sore, and the killer — perhaps one of the other members of the makeshift gang? — had better beware.

   Things do not turn out well, to put it mildly. This is a very short book, only 144 pages in the Avon edition and maybe even shorter in the original Pocket printing. Even so, a lot of people don’t manage to survive it, and ypu can easily conclude that one big huge mistake on Parker’s part is the reason why.

   Westlake has all of the writing chops you could ask for, but I think I’d have rather he hadn’t revealed the killer as early as he did. My interest in what happened after that flagged considerably, nor is Parker is the kind of guy you’d ever like to meet, and I find him too one-dimensional to care about his exploits either.

   On the other hand, another possibility occurs to me. Was Westlake playing games with his readers when he wrote the Parker books? Was he trying to make his “hero” as blunt and hard-boiled for his readers as he could without going way over the top with him?

   One last thing, and these are facts, not opinions or speculations. The movie The Split that was based on the book has a terrific top-notch cast: Jim Brown, Diahann Carroll, Ernest Borgnine, Julie Harris, Gene Hackman, Jack Klugman, Warren Oates, James Whitmore, Donald Sutherland and Joyce Jameson. I’ve never seen it, and I know they changed the story line considerably, but could you find a better bunch of heist movie actors than this?


THE LINEUP. Pajemer/Columbia, 1958. Eli Wallach, Robert Keith, Richard Jaeckel, Mary LaRoche, Emile Meyer, Marshall Reed and Vaughn Taylor. Written by Stirling Silliphant. Directed by Don Siegel.

MURDER BY CONTRACT. Orbit/Columbia, 1958. Vince Edwards, Herschel Bernardi, Philip Pine and Caprice Toriel. Written by Ben Simcoe. Directed by Irving Lerner.

   Two remarkably similar films from the same studio, released within months of each other.

   THE LINEUP is the more polished and less compelling of the two, largely because it’s a spin-off from a TV series and is therefore obliged to spend some time with the familiar cast plodding through familiar paces — and when I say “plod,” I’m being charitable. After a slam-bang opening, things slog through quicksand, as detectives Meyer and Reed patiently interview witnesses, quietly await lab results, placidly look over crime scenes and impassively conduct the obligatory Line-Up.

   Then, twenty minutes into the film, the stillness is broken by the arrival of Eli Wallach and Robert Keith as hit-men hired to retrieve smuggled heroin from three passengers who have carried it concealed in knick-knacks from abroad. And from here on, THE LINEUP becomes a different film altogether: perverse, violent, and non-stop action.

   Action yes, but the real interest of THE LINEUP derives from the interplay of the characters: Richard Jaeckel as a cocky driver, Robert Keith as the erudite overseer of the operation (who collects the last words of their victims) and most of all Eli Wallach as the barely-controlled psychopath who does the killings.

   Wallach is quite good here, moving with staccato grace (His character is appropriately named “Dancer.”) and darting knife-sharp glances at his potential targets like a bomb looking for an excuse to explode. But the character wouldn’t be nearly as effective without the interaction between him and his cohorts, skillfully laid out with Silliphant’s dialogue and knowingly evoked by Don Siegels’s economic direction.

   If you take THE LINEUP, slash the budget and cut out the dull parts, you’ve got MURDER BY CONTRACT, a lean, mean and artful 80 minutes of down-and-dirty crime drama.

   The structure and characters here are pretty much the same as in the earlier film: Vince Edwards is Claude, a creepily emotionless hit-man brought out to L.A. for an important contract and given two wheelman/watchers: Herschel Bernardi as the older, thoughtful type, and Philip Pine, immature and loud-mouthed.

   And again, it’s the relationships between the principals that livens the story, even as Ben Simcoe’s screenplay zips things along. Like THE LINE-UP, CONTRACT breaks the story down into three segments, as Edwards & Co. make tries on their target, with deadly results.

   But where THE LINEUP gets mired in detail, MURDER BY CONTRACT will have none of that — maybe because it was made for roots & berries. Whatever the case, CONTRACT cuts the narrative down to its bare bones, with elliptical editing, cramped sets and spare background music by Perry Botkin that literally underscores the killer’s alienation.

   And when, like Dancer in THE LINEUP, Claude finds himself alone, his physical solitude is a mere formality. He always was an outcast.


DAVID GOODIS – Down There. Gold Medal #623, paperback original; 1st printing, January 1956. Also published as: Shoot the Piano Player, Black Cat, 1962. Reprinted several times under both titles.

SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER. Les Films de la Pléiade, France, 1960, as Tirez sur le pianiste. Astor Pictures Corporation, US, 1962 (subtitled). Charles Aznavour, Marie Dubois, Nicole Berger and Serge Davri. Adapted by Francois Truffaut from the novel Down There by David Goodis. Directed by Francois Truffaut.

   In substance, Down There is pretty typical Gold Medal stuff, what with fist-fights, chases, mobsters, broads, and other rugged manly stuff –- the story is something about a threadbare piano player (Eddie in the book, Charlie in the film) at a seedy bar getting involved with gangs and a waitress — but flavored here with the boozy poetry unique to David Goodis. Goodis could hear the circular logic of a drunk and find in it the awesome redundancy of a Beethoven composition. His characters keep trying to grapple with the meaning of it all, keep losing, keep grappling….

   Oftentimes they succeed in resolving whatever the plot is – they catch the killer, foil the criminal, rescue the damsel – only to lose some more important objective, stuck in whatever personal swamp they started out the book in. So the final lesson of Down There is not just that You Can Go Home Again: your destiny was to never really leave.

   Shoot the Piano Player takes the fatalism of the novel and infuses it with director Francois Truffaut’s soft heart and Charles Aznavour’s masterful sang-froid.o The circular story is still there, faithfully filmed from the novel down to small detail, but it seems somehow more human, as if it isn’t fate so much as the characters themselves that leads them to their predestined ends.

   Aznavour dominates the film, but along the way there are plenty of pauses for the bit players to get out and stretch their legs a bit –- stock characters in Goodis novels and Truffaut films simply refuse to behave like stock characters -– so when Charlie (Aznavour) and Lena (Marie Dubois) are kidnapped by gangsters early on, their captors end up swapping jokes with them. And later on, a thuggish bartender muses aloud about his bad luck with women as he’s trying to choke Charlie to death.

   The point, if there is one (it’s never quite safe to go looking for a moral lesson in Truffaut films or Goodis novels) may be that no one is really ordinary: not in pulp novels, B-movies or what we call Real Life; skid-row bums might be heroes, goons can feel tenderness, and a spear-carrier in the back row of Aida may actually be singing an aria, if we listen closely.

       “Charlie old buddy – may I be familiar? – Charlie old buddy, I’m going to kill you.”


REPORT TO THE COMMISSIONER. United Artists, 1975. Michael Moriarty, Yaphet Kotto, Susan Blakely, Hector Elizondo, Tony King. Screenplay by Abby Mann and Ernest Tidyman, based on the novel by James Mills. Director: Milton Katselas.

   For fans of gritty 1970s urban cinema, Report to the Commissioner has a lot to offer. Filmed on location in and around Times Square, this police procedural also features a lot of the great character actors from that era: Yaphet Kotto, William Devane, Vic Tayback, Bob Balaban, as well as a young Richard Gere as a pimp.

   But the star of the film is a youngish, occasionally overacting Michael Moriarty who portrays a green NYC cop who is way too much of an idealist for an increasingly embittered and cynical police force. His character, Bo Lockley, is the son of a NYPD cop who always wanted his son to join the force. The other son that is, the one who got killed in Vietnam. So Bo joins the force in place of his dead brother. Problem is: Bo is at heart a lefty and a hippie who simply doesn’t belong as a boy in blue. His partner, Crunch Blackstone (Kotto) knows this from the get go and does his absolute best to make sure that Bo doesn’t get himself in trouble with his superiors.

   It’s too little too late. For we get the sense that Bo was doomed from the start, from the moment he walked into the precinct. The movie, which unfolds in flashbacks, begins with Blackstone finding the body of a dead junkie in the apartment of a known heroin pusher named Stick Henderson (Tony King). His main suspect: Bo.

   Report to the Commissioner proceeds to tell the story of how Bo was set up by his superiors to go on a wild goose chase in the search for a runaway named Chicklet. What he isn’t told is that Chicklet is really an undercover cop named Patty Butler (Susan Blakely) who has gone deep undercover on an unauthorized mission to bring down Stick, the heroin dealer who also doubles as a black militant. Note: Abby Mann was one of the screenwriters, so there’s a great deal of social justice messaging afoot here.

   Although Moriarity puts in a good performance, it’s really the city that’s the star here. You can just feel the oppressive, sensory overwhelming nature of Times Square circa 1972. It’s a land of sleazy movie theaters, overwhelming crowds, and strange characters.

   Report to the Commissioner isn’t a great film, but it’s better than average and from what I can tell, has largely been forgotten. I watched it on a Kino Lorber Blu Ray. It looks great and if the story appeals to you, this version is definitely worth seeking out.


THE JANUARY MAN. MGM, 1989. Kevin Kline, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Susan Sarandon, Hervey Keitel, Danny Aiello, Rod Steiger, Alan Rickman. Written by John Patrick Shanley. Directed by Pat O’Connor.

   You have been unjustly fired from a job you did well, and now your ex-employers, faced with a crisis only You can handle, come crawling to ask you back. Along the way they almost interrupt you in a casual act of heroism, but you take the job, whereupon the Red Carpet is rolled out, you meet a sexy young girl who falls madly in love with you, your ex-girlfriend suddenly wants you back, and everybody who ever talked nasty to you is now at your beck and call.

   And wouldn’t it be great if they all brought Chocolate?

   Well, I suppose there are worse male fantasies, and although The January Man is neither as suspenseful as it should be nor as amusing as it could be, it still deserves some credit for realizing its limited aspirations in a light-hearted and relatively non-violent way. In fact, for a movie about a serial killer of women, it’s surprisingly un-sadistic in concept and execution (no pun intended — honest.)

   The January Man also offers some decent thespic opportunities to its performers, who try not to look too surprised at getting them. Kevin Kline is engagingly off-beat as the Cop-turned-Fireman Hero called back to solve the Calendar Girl Murders; Danny Aiello and Rod Steiger are appropriately choleric as his superiors, and Susan Sarandon purveys her own brand of predatory sexuality as Kline’s ex-sweetie. Best of all is Alan Rickman, looking more than ever like a young Vincent Price, as the Maynard Krebbs to Kline’s love-happy Dobie Gillis.

   Two things I noticed about this on repeated viewing:

   First, perhaps because of budget and scheduling restrictions, the big stars in this are seldom on screen at the same time, even when they have scenes together. Director Pat O’Connor keeps shooting important confrontations with his camera on one actor, looking over the back of (probably) a double: A shouting match between Aiello and Steiger, an emotional moment between Kline and the woman who sold him out (Sarandon) and a particularly sticky encounter between Sarandon and Kline’s new love (Mastrantonio) in his apartment – all done with stand-ins, but emoted quite well.

   Secondly, I’m not sure quite what effect the movie was trying for with the( literally) knock-down-drag-out fight at the end, a mix of brutal action and bemused commentary, but it worked for me. In a movie era of obsessed cops and loathsome killers, it was refreshing to see things capped off with an exciting but light-hearted set-to, and I’m glad someone thought of it.

MAN WITH TWO LIVES. Monogram, 1942. Edward Norris, Marlo Dwyer, Eleanor Lawson, Frederick Burton, Addison Richards, Edward Keane, Hugh Sothern, Tom Seidel. Director: Phil Rosen.

   The last time I began one of these online reviews by talking about the “no name” cast, I was quickly made fun of, for not recognizing any of players. So, having not yet learned my lesson, how many of the names above, not including Phil Rosen, have you heard of?

   No matter. Low budget movie or not, there was only one of the members of the cast who didn’t seem to me to be up for the part he was playing. As for the movie itself, it begins in pure sci-fi mode, with a doctor seen surrounded by all kinds of electronic gadgets and bubbling test tubes set up in the lab he has put together in his back bedroom. After years of research, it turns out that he has brought a dead dog’s heart back to life.

   Does it work on humans? He doesn’t know, but when the son of a friend is killed in an automobile accident, he is persuaded to try. By pure coincidence the attempt is made at the stroke of midnight, exactly the same time as when the switch is pulled on a notorious killer in the death house at a nearby state penitentiary.

   The audience catches on far more quickly than the friends and relatives of the young man who is the subject of the experiment. He awakes having amnesia but soon begins to find himself drawn to the dead mob leader’s headquarters. Surprisingly quickly he becomes the new head of the gang.

   Even worse, he spurns the girl he was engaged to marry to take up with knockout beauty who was the dead gangster’s moll. There is eventually some talk of the “transmigration of the soul” to explain all this scientifically, but even if it’s all hooey at the heart of it, this is a fun movie to watch.

   This in spite of what definitely qualifies as a “dumb ending.” And no names in the cast or not.


STRANGE SHADOWS IN AN EMPTY ROOM. Fida Cinematografica, Italy, 1976, as Una Magnum Special per Tony Saitta. American International, US, 1977. Stuart Whitman, John Saxon, Martin Landau, Tisa Farrow, Carole Laure, Jean Leclerc, Gayle Hunnicutt. Director: Alberto De Martino.

   Stuart Whitman does his best as a Canadian Dirty Harry in Strange Shadows in an Empty Room, an Italian crime movie filmed in Ottawa and Montreal. Sleazy with giallo flourishes, the movie follows Ottawa policeman Tony Saitta (Whitman) as he attempts to make sense of his sister’s bizarre poisoning death in Montreal.

   The top suspect is physician George Tracer (Martin Landau), who was having an affair with the young university student. But there are a few other people with secrets of their own who may have had something to do with the shocking crime.

   The movie follows Tony as he, along with his Montreal counterpart Ned Matthews (John Saxon), traverse the boulevards and back streets of Quebec’s largest city in an attempt to figure out what Tony’s sister’s death may have had to do with a murder and jewelry theft in Toronto. Along the way, Tony investigates the death of a transvestite, helps a blind woman stalked by a killer, and uncovers a romantic affair involving Tracer’s son.

   There’s a ridiculous car chase scene that goes on way too long, a fight scene in which Tony takes on three violent transvestites, and a series of illogical and implausible scenarios all culminating in a final shootout in which our antihero shoots down a helicopter with his Magnum.

   Not a good movie by any stretch of the imagination, but a surprisingly engrossing one for those in the mood for something that could only have been produced in 1970s Italy.


DOWN THREE DARK STREETS. United Artists, 1954. Broderick Crawford, Ruth Roman, Martha Hyer, Marisa Pavan, Max Showalter (as Casey Adams), Kenneth Tobey. Screenplay by Bernard C. Schoenfeld and The Gordons (Gordon & Mildred), based on the latter’s novel Case File: FBI. Director: Arnold Laven.

   If you can get past the grating voice-over narration designed to constantly remind you that the brave men of the FBI fight crime like this every day, Down Three Dark Streets is an enjoyable, if somewhat ordinary, crime docudrama. Directed by Arnold Laven, who is perhaps known more for his work in television, this lesser known film noir features Broderick Crawford as FBI Agent John Ripley of the Los Angeles field office. His task is to solve what appears at first to be three completely unrelated crimes: a wanted criminal on the lam; an extortion plot targeting a widow by the name of Kate Martell (Ruth Roman) and her young daughter; and an auto theft ring.

   When Ripley’s partner is gunned down while following up on a lead on one of the cases, the stakes are raised. Now it’s not just business. It’s personal. Or so that’s what’s the impression I think the viewer is supposed to get. Oddly, though, you never really get a sense of Ripley’s personality, let alone his personal life. Crawford portrays him as somewhat monkish, if also tough and jaded. Perhaps this was by design, with the filmmakers wanting to show the FBI as an organization so devoted to the job of protecting the public that their agents don’t have time or the luxury of families and friends.

   What makes Down Three Dark Streets worth a look, though, is in its hardboiled dialogue and its cast. There are some fine character actors here. Max Showalter portrays a sleazy real estate agent living beyond his means; Claude Akins takes the role of a boxer and an underworld enforcer; and Jacob Adler (brother of Luther and Stella) is well cast as the deadbeat uncle living with Kate Martell (Roman).

   And last, but by no means least, is the final sequence, a showdown filmed on location under the W of the Hollywood sign. It’s a great, albeit little known, moment in crime film history, with dollar bills blowing in the wind through the Hollywood Hills.


HIGHWAY DRAGNET. Allied Artists, 1954. Richard Conte, Joan Bennett, Wanda Hendrix, Reed Hadley, Mary Beth Hughes, Iris Adrian, Frank Jenks. Screenplay by Herb Meadow and Jerome Odlum. Director: Nathan Juran.

   It’s the cast and the filming locales that make the somewhat predictable Highway Dragnet worth watching. Produced in part by Roger Corman, this programmer is directed by Nathan Juran, who is perhaps best known for his work in the fantasy and science fiction genre.

   The movie stars Richard Conte as Jim Henry, a Korean War veteran falsely accused of the murder of a former model he meets in a Vegas bar. It’s only when he realizes that Las Vegas Police Lt. Joe White Eagle (a perfectly cast Reed Hadley) is playing for keeps that he decides to make a break for it and begins a life on the lam with the goal of finding the one man who could provide him with an unshakable alibi.

   What Henry doesn’t know is that one of the two women he has decided to hitch a ride with may actually be the real killer. Most of the movie follows Jim as he joins up with a saucy photographer (Joan Bennett) and her next top model (Wanda Hendrix) as they make their way across the Nevada border and into the sparse California desert. There’s some great scenery here and from what I can ascertain, at least a portion of the movie was indeed filmed in California’s Coachella Valley, a location now known more for its annual music festival than anything else.

   Overall, it’s a fun ride for the viewer. Conte may not have been the best actor for this specific part, but his work on screen is always generally solid and Highway Dragnet is no exception. Perhaps it was due to the film’s meager running time (71 minutes!), but one of the key plot points is given away in expositionary dialogue rather than in a cinematic form, something that detracts from the movie’s impact.

   But it’s really not worth that much complaining about. The movie works for what it was designed to do, namely to tell a story, raise the stakes, and provide a satisfactory conclusion in which the good guy clears his name and wins the girl.

TRAPPED. Eagle-Lion Films, 1949. Lloyd Bridges, Barbara Payton, John Hoyt, James Todd. Director: Richard Fleischer.

   Leading man Lloyd Bridges had been around for a while when this movie was made, but this was co-star Barbara Payton’s first credited role in a full-length film. In spite of opening in full-tilt documentary style, expounding the many jobs done by the Treasury Department, and needfully shot on a low budget, the movie definitely falls into the film noir category, and one which definitely needs to be watched by aficionados of such films — once they’ve see all of the better ones.

   It was at first difficult to see Lloyd Bridges as a villain — he’s a little too “honest looking” (if not clean cut) for that — but he was also a good enough actor that he gradually starts to make his role as the former owner of some counterfeit plates more and more believable as time goes on.

   Sprung from jail, nominally having agreed to work undercover for the Treasury Department, he pulls a fast one on them and heads straight for his old girl friend (you know who that is) and the fellow who has the plates now. There’s nothing you haven’t seen before happens from here on in, but it is well filmed and choreographed.

   No, I’ll take that back. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film before in which neither of the two primary leads appear in the last 10 to 15 minutes. (One is dead, the other is in jail. I won’t tell you which is which.)

   In the meantime it is John Hoyt (good) on the chase of James Todd (bad) in the Los Angeles Trolley Barn (very picturesque) that takes the spotlight in the long action-packed finale of this moderately entertaining crime film. Overall, better than expected, but not that much better.

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