Crime Films

RACE STREET . RKO Radio Pictures, 1948. George Raft, William Bendix, Marilyn Maxwell, Frank Faylen, Harry Morgan, Gale Robbins. Director: Edwin L. Marin.

   Although available on DVD from Warner Archives, Race Street is largely a rather obscure one. even if considered film noir, a popular category now, if ever there was one. It has a decent cast, but I think the reason hardly anyone remembers or talks about it today, is that as a film, it’s mostly a mediocre one. It has its moments, including a few flashes of hard-boiled action, but it’s far too talky to stand out in a field filled with so many other crime films that came out around the same time and had a lot more to offer.

   George Raft plays the kind of bookie whom other bookies lay off their larger bets on, but a new gang is in town (San Francisco), and they’re beginning to push their way in,. What they offer is “protection” and they show no remorse in demonstrating what happens to guys who don’t take them up on it. William Bendix plays a childhood friend who’s also a cop, and who tries to persuade Raft to let the police take care of the problem.

   Raft will have nothing to do with it, of course, not even when one of his friends dies after being pushed around a little too hard. It doesn’t stop Bendix from talking and nudging and trying to persuade him otherwise. A couple of lengthy musical numbers featuring Gale Robbins as the lead vocalist are well done, but move the story along, they don’t.

   Marilyn Maxwell as a sultry brunette this time around plays Raft’s girl friend, a very eye-pleasing girl friend, to be sure, but her role in the story is, well, shall we say not particularly well filled out. If I’d been in charge of production, say, I’d have cut the musical numbers and given her story line the amount of running time it really needed.

   Since it’s far too late for the real director to have taken my advice, alas, he didn’t. While the end result is watchable, especially if you’re a George Raft fan — and to tell you the truth, I think his performance here is one of his better ones — you probably won’t remember it for more than ten minutes or so afterward.


JOHNNY COOL. United Artists, 1963. Henry Silva, Elizabeth Montgomery, Richard Anderson, Jim Backus, Joey Bishop, Brad Dexter, Wanda Hendrix, Marc Lawrence. Based on the book The Kingdom of Johnny Cool, by John McPartland. Director: William Asher.

   The character played by William Campbell in Backlash [reviewed here ], is named Johnny Cool, which is also the name of a violent low-budget movie from 1963 starring Henry Silva, who played Mexicans, Orientals and Indians in the movies, but was actually born in New York.

   Here he’s a Sicilian bandit exported to America to wipe out the rivals of deposed gang lord Marc Lawrence. Said rivals seem to be composed mostly of the outer fringes of Sinatra’s “Rat Pack.” (I think about half the cast was in Ocean’s Eleven) plus personalities and character actors like Mort Sahl, John Dierkes, John McGiver, Elisha Cook Jr and Jim Backus.

   With a line-up like that, Johnny Cool should have offered some fun, but it’s a largely mechanical thing, with lots of action but little excitement, dealt out by director William Asher — whose credits include Return to Green Acres, I Dream of Jeannie and the “Beach Party” movies.

   In Asher’s listless hands, the film gets no sense of progress or momentum; it’s simply a series of lackluster set pieces on the way to an oddly creepy ending that was probably accidental.

   Incidentally Johnny Cool was based on a Gold Medal Original by John McPartland, The Kingdom of Johnny Cool, which as the distinction of being unreadable.

— Reprinted from The Hound of Dr. Johnson #51, May 2007.

THE TAKE. Columbia Pictures, 1974. Billy Dee Williams, Eddie Albert, Vic Morrow, Frankie Avalon, Sorrell Booke, Tracy Reed, Albert Salmi, A Martinez. based on the novel Sir, You Bastard by G. F. Newman. Director: Robert Hartford-Davis.

   Billy Dee Williams, who was rather young at the time, plays a San Francisco cop who comes down to Paloma, New Mexico, to help harried police chief Eddie Albert bring Vic Morrow to justice, as a local organized crime leader named Victor Manso, posing as a highly respected community leader.

   What we the viewer soon know that Williams also has a hidden identity, that of a cop on the take. Apparently he’s been accepting graft money from mobsters for quite some time now, all the while building up his resumé as a dedicated cop on his way up. He even has a middle man in Sorrell Booke to launder his money for him.

   There are some occasional good scenes in The Take, a lot of good professional actors having some solid roles to play, and a more than a sufficient amount of TV style action (vicious thuggery and endless car chase scenes). The problem is twofold: (1) Williams is cocky without being likeable, and (2) there’s no sense of continuity between the good parts, the several there are. The result, not surprisingly, is a listless, jumbled up mess. Watchable, but once seen, there’s no particular reason you’d ever want to sit through this again.

DIAL RED O. Allied Artists, 1955. Bill Elliott, Helene Stanley, Keith Larsen, Paul Picerni, Jack Kruschen, Elaine Riley. Written and directed by Daniel B. Ullman.

   Getting too old for the B-westerns he’d been making, and with B-westerns on their way out anyway, “Wild” Bill Elliott ended his movie-making career with five low budget police dramas from Allied Artists. This is the first of the five, all of them recently released in a box set from Warner Archives.

   Strangely enough, Elliott never appeared once on television, so when the five crime films didn’t pan out, he seems to have disappeared quietly into retirement. I’ve had the five movies on a want list for quite a while, but while Dial Red O is perfectly acceptable for what it is, I was also disappointed. Except for possibly some of the lighting effects and a jazzy score by Shorty Rogers and his group, there are no noir aspects to the film at all.

   Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But Dial Red O could easily almost have been an extended version of Dragnet on TV, without the monotone deliveries and the distinctive “Dum – – – de – DUM – DUM.

   Not that Elliott doesn’t speak in terse, clipped tones himself. In this film he’s a Hollywood police lieutenant named Andy Flynn, and the fugitive he’s after is an escapee from an army psychiatric hospital whose wife had just divorced him.

   The wife, played by Helene Stanley, has been playing around. After she’s killed by her married lover, the fugitive Flynn os looking for is the obvious suspect.

   From here on, or even before, there are no frills, only straight-forward police work. Nothing less, but nothing more, either.


JOHNNY GUNMAN. Will Kohler Productions, 1957. Martin E. Brooks, Ann Donaldson, Johnny Seven, Woodrow Parfrey, and Carrie Radisson. Written & directed by Art Ford.

   Well… it’s different.

   An independent effort from 1957, Johnny Gunman unfolds a tale of gang war over a single night, and with that premise and the title I was expecting some action. Maybe a lot of action. But this is quite literally all talk.

   The story? Johnny G, aspiring Gang Boss (Martin E. Brooks) meets failed writer (Ann Donaldson) and they kill time till his confrontation with a rival aspiring gang boss.

   When I say they kill time, I mean they talk it to death. All allocution. Nothing but natter in the absence of action. Conversation commences and gab goes on, declamation and discourse dominate the drama, challenged by chatter, overcome by oration. It got to the point where I was staring in disbelief at a film that made Andy Warhol’s Empire look like Kill Bill.

   If I were guessing, I’d say this was written with an eye toward Playhouse 90 or some such, influenced by Gore Vidal’s Billy the Kid, with the intention of injecting Significance into a genre piece. Somehow it ended up as the B&W equivalent of Creation of the Humanoids: an arty, low-budget sub-basement film, probably destined for the bottom of a triple-bill or maybe as filler in a burlesque show.

   That’s a pity, because there are glimmers of talent here. The acting is generally good, if a bit intense, the camera work threadbare but inventive, and the script…..

   Well, there are moments where all that talk is almost believable. Unfortunately those moments are buried in an avalanche of other moments where I just wished they’d shut up and shoot somebody.

   Maybe words are like any other commodity: when there aren’t many, they seem very special, but when they glut the market, they lose their value. Whatever the case, Johnny Gunman strives to sound important, but finally achieves only self-importance. And that ain’t even close.


THE CROOKED WAY. United Artists, 1949. John Payne John Payne, Sonny Tufts, Ellen Drew, Rhys Williams, Percy Helton, John Doucette, Don Haggerty. Director: Robert Florey.

   Although in many ways a highly impressive film noir, The Crooked Way doesn’t have much in the way of depth. The story is a familiar one to those steeped in the works of writers such as Cornell Woolrich and David Goodis. World War II has ended. A man (John Payne) wakes up in a U.S. Army hospital in San Francisco with a metal fragment in his skull and no memory of his past life. He thinks he’s named Eddie Rice and from Los Angeles.

   It therefore makes sense that he’d go to the City of Angels to piece together who he is so he can begin living again. When he gets to LA, though, he soon learns that his real last name isn’t Rice. It’s Riccardi. Eddie Riccardi. And he led a life of crime and was mixed up with some seriously bad dudes.

   He also had – or has – a wife named Nina Martin (Ellen Drew), who is now working with his former associate, the nasty and brutish Vince Alexander (Sonny Tufts). Much of the running time is spent on the cat-and-mouse games played by the LAPD and Vince with Eddie (Payne) caught in the middle. And just when things don’t seem as if they could get any worse for him, he finds himself framed for the murder of a LAPD officer.

   All standard material in the world of late 1940s crime cinema, topped off with a significant amount of time devoted to the then nascent science of forensics. Payne does more than an admirable job in portraying the film’s doomed protagonist, although he isn’t quite able to capture his character’s inner life. How tormented is Eddie Rice/Riccardi after all he’s been through? To be honest, we don’t really know. Had the producers wanted more of the lead character’s trauma explored, someone like Robert Ryan would have been a more suitable actor for the part.

   What The Crooked Way may lack in depth, however, it more than makes up for in flair and style. The movie was lovingly photographed by cinematographer John Alton, who lent his signature touch to numerous films noir in the 1940s and 1950s. From the lighting to the prototypical noirish mood settings, the movie is steeped in the dark and shadowy world of film noir.

   I know that sometimes there is a debate about whether a movie can rightly be considered a film noir. Trust me, this one with the neon lights, the nightclubs, the rainy LA street, the shootout in a warehouse, the unique camera angles, is about as visually noir as you can get. Recommended.


THE MAN WHO DIED TWICE. Republic Pictures, 1958. Rod Cameron, Vera Ralston, Mike Mazurki, Gerald Milton, Richard Karlan. Writer: Richard C. Sarafian. Director: Joseph Kane.

   Albeit brief in running time, The Man Who Died Twice is a surprisingly stylish film noir from Joseph Kane, a director better known for his work with Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. With a taut screenplay from Richard C. Sarafian, there’s more than a hint of sleaze in this crime thriller. Let’s see. There’s the lead character who may or may not be a Kansas City cop, a nosy old woman who gets more than she bargains for when she snoops on a couple of hitmen, a heroin addict who double crosses her dealer, and a nightclub singer who pretends not to see the obvious sin all around her. All good stuff if you’re into that sort of thing.

   Rod Cameron portrays Bill Brennon, the Kansas City cop who shows up in town after he learns that his good for nothing brother T.J. died in an automobile accident. He soon finds out that T.J., a nightclub owner, was mixed up in a heroin smuggling operation and that he got into some disputes with his business associates.

   Further complicating matters is Lynn Brennon, his brother’s widow. She professes to know nothing about what her deceased husband was mixed up in. But Bill feels protective toward her. In fact, he may even be falling in love with her. All of this is quite displeasing to Rak (Mike Mazurki), one of bartenders at the nightclub, who obviously is also holding a candle toward Lynn.

   There’s not really one second wasted in this Republic Pictures release. It moves at breakneck speed and has some exceptionally well-crafted moments, especially those involving the two hitmen sent from Chicago to recover a payload of heroin from the dead brother’s apartment. In this way and others, this movie reminded me quite a bit of The Lineup (which I reviewed here), also released in 1958. Although the latter film is clearly superior, the two put together would make for a great double feature.


THE PRETENDER. Republic, 1947. Albert Dekker, Catherine Craig, Charles Drake, Alan Carney, Linda Stirling and Tom Kennedy. Written by Don Martin and Doris Miller. Photography by John Alton. Produced & directed by W. Lee Wilder.

   I read someplace that film noir was a genre in which even lesser talents could shine, a premise borne out convincingly by this film, because if ever there were a definitive Lesser Talent, it was surely Billy Wilder’s brother: William “W. Lee” Wilder.

   In fact, The Pretender isn’t bad at all, and in places it’s surprisingly good, coming from the auteur of Killers from Space and The Man Without a Body.

   Albert Dekker’s usual noir persona was as the Criminal Boss a little too intelligent for his own good, to be brought down by his less-mentally-encumbered underlings in films like Suspense, The Killers, and Kiss Me Deadly. Here he’s an investment broker who’s been pilfering from a client (Catherine Craig) and plots to cover the theft by marrying her.

   But it seems Ms Craig has marital plans of her own, and is about to be engaged to Charles Drake. Dekker doesn’t know the identity of her prospective fiancé, but figures if he can put whoever it is out of action, he can catch Craig on the rebound. And he knows a guy (Alan Carney, just split from his godawful comedy-team-up with Wally Brown at RKO) who knows a guy who can eliminate the inconvenient beau—if Dekker can tell him who it is.

   Here’s where Don Martin’s script gets tricky. Dekker arranges for Carney’s hit man to rub out the rival when his name and picture show up in the Society Column. Whereupon fickle Ms Craig has a change of heart and elopes with Dekker—who finds his name and picture in the papers!

   I’ve mentioned Screenwriter Don Martin before, in connection with the movie Arrow in the Dust (which, come to think of it, also deals with mistaken identity) and he does a fine job here of fleshing out the characters, laying the groundwork for plot twists, and papering over the implausibilities.

   When it comes to establishing mood, though, I must tip the hat to cinematographer John Alton, whose work includes The Big Combo, Reign of Terror, He Walked by Night, and big-budget things like Elmer Gantry and The Brothers Karamozov. Alton fills the screen with striking compositions, looming shadows and those just-slightly-strange lighting effects that can cast an eerie atmosphere over an otherwise mundane moment.

   This off-beat approach extends to the casting, with Dekker going from stodgy to desperate quite convincingly. Charles Drake projects his usual bluff nothingness, and he does it well, Christine Craig is really quite good as the middle-aged socialite bent on marriage, but the big surprise is Alan Carney, as the sleazy middle-man for murder. There’s just something about his performance here that makes you wonder how a fat man like him crawled out from under a rock. Add Serial Queen Linda Stirling in a showy part as a vengeful moll, and you have a colorful ensemble indeed.

   It’s a combination even a flat-footed director like Wilder can’t mess up, and The Pretender comes off as an enjoyable and even memorable noir worthy of your attention.

ED McBAIN – Cop Hater. 87th Precinct #1. Permabook M-4268, paperback original, 1956. Reprint editions include: Signet, paperback, 1973. Pocket, paperback, 1999.

COP HATER. United Artists, 1958. Robert Loggia (Detective Steve Carelli), Gerald O’Loughlin, Ellen Parker, Shirley Ballard, Jerry Orbach. Screenwriter: Henry Kane, based on the novel by Ed McBain. Director: William Berke.

   In his introduction to the Pocket edition, Ed McBain (Evan Hunter) lays out his case that Cop Hater was the first ever ensemble police procedural, in which the focus is not always on the same detective from book to book, that the detectives involved would even not only come and go, but those who stayed would grow as individuals as time went on.

   I have no reason to disagree. There were police procedurals of course before he came along, but none that I know of that follow the pattern he established with the 87th Precinct books. (You can read more about the history of this particular subgenre of crime fiction here.) Nor can you argue against the success of the series. There were 55 in all, the final one being Fiddlers, which came out in 2005, the year Evan Hunter died.

   Cop Hater, as well as all of the other books in the series, takes place in the fictional city of Isola, which for all intents and purposes may as well be New Your City. Again in his introduction McBain explains why he decided to go the Isola route: He thought he was taking up too much of time of the various detective he was in touch with trying to be sure his facts were as correct as possible.

   This, the first book, takes place in the middle of a heat wave, day after day in the 90s, with air conditioned homes and offices at a premium, including the 87th Precinct’s station house. Compounding the problems of the officers who are headquartered there is that they have a series killer on their hands, someone who hates cops and is taking out that hatred the hard way.

   The count is up to three before they get a break in the case as well as in the weather. Most of the work is done by dogged on-the-ground police work, dead ends and false leads included. A great start to an even better series overall. To my mind, anyone who’s a fan of police procedurals can really ought to own as many books in this series as they can.

   As drenched in sweat as the book is, the movie is even more so, when we can see the effects of the heat if not feel it ourselves. I think that this a movie that’s actually helped by not having a big budget to spend on expensive sets — the cheaper they are, the more authentic they seem — or even the money to spend on bigger name actors, which as it turns out, wasn’t needed anyway. All the people in this film are dead=on perfect.

   The movie follows the book almost exactly as well, except for one added scene in which Carelli (Carella in the book) and his girl friend Teddy (who is deaf) go out on a double date with his partner Maguire (Bush in the book) and his wife. I’m not sure why this was included. I may have misinterpreted the scriptwriter’s intention, but to me it made the ending feel tacked on, rather than coming as a logical conclusion, as it does in the book.

   Don’t put a lot of meaning to this. If you enjoy the 87th Precinct books, all I can say is don’t miss this filmed version of the very first one.


CODE TWO. MGM, 1953. Ralph Meeker, Robert Horton. Sally Forrest, Jeff Richards. Elaine Stewart, Keenan Wynn, James Craig. Director: Fred M. Wilcox

   Code Two, a movie that I was completely unfamiliar with prior to purchasing it on DVD a few days before watching it, is actually two movies in one. The first, which goes on far too long, is a completely inoffensive, if occasionally dull, semi-documentary film about three recruits at the Los Angeles Police Academy. The story follows the three men as they transition from civilians to motorcycle cops working in the Traffic Division. There’s really nothing particularly wrong with this portion of the movie. But there’s no compelling reason for it to exist, either. That is, unless you are really – and I mean really – interested in police motorcycles.

   Now on to the second movie, so to speak. This far more invigorating portion of the film is a crime drama/murder mystery in which one of the recruits, a hothead by the name of Chuck O’Flair (Ralph Meeker), must redeem himself and apprehend the cattle rustlers who killed his friend and partner, Harry Whenion (Jeff Richards). There’s some romance between O’Flair and his now deceased friend’s girlfriend, but that thankfully takes a back seat to some standard police procedural moments. There’s a motorcycle chase (of course) and there’s the “calling all cars” segment that I am sure the producers insisted be in the film.

   But what really stands out is a final action sequence in which O’Flair must wage a one-man war against a gaggle of cattle rustlers in a slaughterhouse somewhere out in the northern part of Los Angeles County. It’s a fairly violent and rather gritty ending to a film that starts off as a genial look at the day in the life of LAPD recruits.

   Meeker is well-cast and makes as much as he can of the part. Look for Robert Horton, perhaps best known for his work in the Western genre, as Meeker’s partner and for Keenan Wynn and James Craig as the police brass. One last thing. The DVD cover tells me that this movie is “the fastest drama on two wheels!” I suspect that’s a bit of hyperbole.

Next Page »