Crime Films

NEW ORLEANS AFTER DARK. Allied Artists, 1958. Stacy Harris, Louis Sirgo, Ellen Moore. Director: John Sledge.

   According to TV Guide, this sad imitation of Dragnet was based on a television series. It took some searching, but I finally discovered that Stacy Harris was also the lead on an obscure syndicated series called N.O.P.D. so that must be the one but that’s all I know about it.

   This movie version concerns dope traffic coming into New Orleans, and two homicide detective who investigate when two showgirls who use the stuff are bumped off. The motive is not exactly clear, but apparently there is a chance they’ll talk if they’re arrested and forced to go without their regular supply.

   Stacy Harris was a veteran radio star — in fact, he was the leading man on This Is Your FBI for most of its eight years on the air — and while his voice is about twice the size he actually is, he does a decent job, but everyone else in this movie acts as stiff as a board.

   At best, this would be fifth-rate TV. How’d they ever come to make a whole movie of it?

– Very slightly revised from Mystery*File 26, December 1990.




OUTSIDE THE WALL. Universal, 1950.Richard Basehart, Marilyn Maxwell, Signe Hasso, Dorothy Hart, John Hoyt, Joseph Pevney, Lloyd Gough, and Harry Morgan. Written by Henry Edward Helseth and Crane Wilbur. Directed by Crane Wilbur.

   No classic, but it’ll keep you watching.

   Richard Basehart plays Larry Martin, a convict just shy of 30, released after fifteen years in prison (do the math.) At loose ends on the outside, he gets a job in a TB sanitarium. A bit of exposition shows Martin to be tough and savvy, but lacking in social skills and completely at a loss with women — elements that will figure into the plot just ahead.

   About this time Martin sees newspaper headlines about a million-dollar heist of an armored car, the gang decimated in a shoot-out that left only two at large with the loot — and recognizes photos of head-perp Jack Bernard (John Hoyt) from the time he spent in stir. And as plot would have it, a few days later Bernard is admitted to the sanitarium under an assumed name, near death from TB.

   All this time, Martin has been struggling to establish a relationship with his co-workers, passing over pretty and pleasant nurse Celia (Signe Hasso) for greedy blonde Charlotte (Marilyn Maxwell.) When Charlotte lets him know she wants the “finer things” in life, Martin accepts a job offer from the fugitive Bernard.

   It seems Bernard is paying protection to his ex-wife Ann (venomous Dorothy Hart) and needs Martin to deliver it while he’s laid up. Ann only seems interested in how soon Bernard will croak, but it soon develops that she has a few nasty friends (including a sadistic Harry Morgan) who think Martin must be the other survivor of the heist, and their ticket to the hot millions.

   From this point on, Outside the Wall gets agreeably tricky and enjoyably violent. Helseth wrote the novel basis of the classic Cry of the City, and he has a sure feel for dishonor among thieves. He’s not helped at all by Crane Wilbur’s flat-footed direction, and neither are the actors, but Richard Basehart gives out with a neatly-played character — smart and tough among the low-lifes he grew up with, but lost and vulnerable with ordinary folk, and quite unable to cope with the decent woman who wants to save him.

   The result is a film that mostly misses its potential. But it comes close enough to stay with.

T-MEN. Eagle-Lion Films, 1947. Dennis O’Keefe, Mary Meade, Alfred Ryder, Wallace Ford, June Lockhart, Charles McGraw, Jane Randolph. Narrated by Reed Hadley (uncredited). Director of Photography: John Alton. Directed by Anthony Mann.

   Although the continual narration turns off some viewers, or so I’ve been told, T-Men is one of the better semi-documentary noir films of all time. It’s the US Treasury Department which takes its place in the spotlight, with gang of counterfeiter the target of the agents working there. The story may be a little long in the telling, as the two men working undercover work their way through the world of the underground by starting in Detroit to establish their “credentials” before heading to the West Coast to match their superior plates with the gang’s top-notch paper, imported from China.

   Both Dennis O’Keefe (as one of the agents) and Wallace Ford (an aging hanger-on with the gang) turn in fine performances, but the star of the show is John Alton, as head cinematographer, along with director Anthony Mann. Between them they came up with a film perfectly shot in pristine black-and-white, using lot of unusual angles and closeups that add immensely to the story, not distract from it.

   I do not know why Mary Meade, playing a nightclub photographer received second billing. She was on the screen only for a few minutes total. It’s mostly a men’s affair. On the other hand, June Lockhart makes the most of her very short appearance, while Jane Randolph makes a even greater impression as a villainess close to the top of California gang’s hierarchy.

   If you are a fan of film noir and have not yet seen this, please do. You can thank me later.




LURE OF THE SWAMP. Regal Films/20th Century Fox, 1957. Marshall Thompson, Willard Parker, Joan Vohs, Jack Elam, Leo Gordon, and Joan Lora. Screenplay by William George, from the novel Hell’s Our Destination, by Gil Brewer (Gold Medal, paperback original, 1953). Directed by Hubert Cornfield.

   No great shakes, but a solid bit of pulp from a director with a feel for two-bit paperbacks.

   Marshall Thompson stars as Simon Lewt, a good ol’ boy making a meager living on the Florida bayou. As the film, opens, he’s approached by a furtive-looking city-slicker (Willard Parker) with a heavy suitcase, who wants a guide into the swamp — only so far and no farther. The stranger goes on ahead a short distance, and when he returns his suitcase is noticeably lighter.


   The plot quickly thickens when Simon goes into town a few days later and sees the stranger’s face on the front page of a newspaper, above the headline BANK ROBBERY SUSPECT MURDERED. About the same time, strangers hit town: A businessman on vacation, looking for good fishing (Burly Leo Gordon) a mysterious blonde (Joan Vohs) and ratty-looking Jack Elam, who just wanders out of the swamp and moves in with Simon. All three are obviously at odds with each other, all three know Simon can lead them to the stashed loot, and Simon finds himself holding low cards in a game that makes its own rules.

   There are no surprises here, but Director Cornfield moves it right along, and evokes a real sense of claustrophobic angst out of Marshall Thompson (never the most electrifying of actors) finding himself mired in a crime that just seems to go on and on.

   The ending is entirely too pat, but here, as in The Third Voice, and whatever he did of Night of the Following Day, Hubert Cornfield showed a feel for the essence of the classic paperback that was decades ahead of fashion.




THE SCARF. Gloria Productions, US, 1951. John Ireland, Mercedes McCambridge, James Barton, Basil Ruysdale, Emlyn Williams, David Bauer (as David Wolfe) and King Donovan. Written by E A Dupont, Isadore Goldsmith, and Edwin Rolfe. Directed by E A Dupont.

   Robert Bloch contended that The Scarf was ripped off from his book of the same name, but the spirit of the thing comes closer to Goodis than Bloch, and aside from the title and a bit of 40s pop-psychology, it’s an original film — not a complete success, but strange enough to keep watching.

   John Ireland, a couple years after All the King’s Men and struggling to achieve leading-man status, stars as an amnesiac escapee from a state mental hospital who makes his way across the desert and onto the poultry farm of philosophical turkey-rancher James Barton, who asks him not so much about his crime as about his place in the universe.

   Okay, that caught me by surprise. As did a too-clever cop who turns up to trade quotations from the great thinkers with Barton. Later on we get David Wolfe (an actor who spent most of his career in uncredited bit parts) as Level Louie, a thoughtful bartender, and Mercedes McCambridge (also of …King’s Men) as “Cash ‘n’ Carry Connie” a torch singer in one of the seediest bars in the B-movies. The sight of McCambridge slinking awkwardly about this poverty-row dive trying to be Lizabeth Scott is hysterical in every sense of the word, but somehow it’s not without a certain desperate charm, as one studies the actress and the character and wonders how a woman could fall so low.

   All this is directed by E.A. Dupont, himself once a director of note, now fallen on harder times, who focuses more on the characters than the plot, which is a good thing because the story is a rather silly affair of murder supposedly committed by a mental patient but actually done in a moment of mad passion by the most obvious suspect in the film. I don’t mean to sound dismissive, though; The Scarf, for all its faults and pretensions, carries enough loopy appeal to keep lovers of strange movies happy enough for its brief running time.




36 HOURS TO KILL. 20th Century Fox, 1936. Brian Donlevy, Gloria Stuart, Douglas Fowley, Isabel Jewell, Warren Hymer, Stepin Fetchit, James Burke. Based on a story by W. R. Burnett. Directed by Eugene Forde. Released commercially on DVD.

Anne Marvis (Gloria Stuart): So this is Albuquerque?

Frank Evers (Brian Donlevy) There’s no Indians.

Anne: They’re all working for the WPA.

Frank: What a relief.

   Get it?

   That’s the wise cracking speed of the humor in this not quite a mystery comedy, that still manages to pack quite a bit of screwball into the tale of a Public Enemy on the run and a blooming romance on a train from Los Angeles to Topeka that accompanies his journey.

   Alvin Karpis has just met his rendezvous with J. Edgar Hoover, the headlines proclaim, while Duke Benson (Douglas Fowley) sweats out hiding in the suburbs of LA with his moll/wife Jeanie (Isabel Jewell) while flunky Hazy (Warren Hymer) makes house calls to deliver the news.

   This time he brings a newspaper from home, Topeka, with him and Duke spies in the paper that a mysterious lottery winner who signed himself Little Boy Blue has won $150,000, and Duke is Little Boy Blue, the winning ticket in his wallet. Just one problem: How will he ever cash it in with the Feds everywhere looking for him?

   Duke comes up with a plan. Jeanie will fly to Topeka since it is dangerous for them to travel with each other, and after arranging with his old gang for a place to hide out once there, Duke will book tickets on the train, Hazy getting on board first, and Duke making a daring transfer from a moving car in the dark as the train is still moving slow. Then Duke will hideout in his compartment for the rest of the trip.

   Complicating things at the train station is reporter Frank Evers, who is hounding a man he claims is a famous scientist he has to get a story on so desperately he buys a ticket to come along, a little girl traveling by herself who takes a shine to Hazy, and boarding at the first stop, Anne Mavis, an attractive blonde fleeing process server James Burke until she can cross over into Arizona.

   When Duke has to leave his compartment for annoying porter Stepin Fetchit to make his bed Anne, hiding from the process server, climbs in Duke’s unoccupied bed, and in true screwball style mistaken for Duke’s wife by the process server, but not by Evers who has already cozied up to Duke.

   Later still Jeanie, when her plane is forced down by a storm, will join the train finding Anne’s gloves in Duke’s compartment and jumping to conclusions so Anne has to pretend to be Frank’s wife to appease Jeannie’s insane jealousy, not really all that insane considering Duke’s proclivities and designs on Anne and how handy Jeanie is with a knife.

   And when they reach Topeka and Duke realizes the Feds are hot on his trail when the porter finds a microphone in his compartment (“Dat one of them new telephones, Mr.?”) things get really complex when he kidnaps Anne and takes her to the phony sanitarium run by his former gang and Frank has to rescue her by posing as the agent from the Insurance Agent paying the lottery ticket off to Duke’s lawyer (Charles Lane).

   Mostly the movie crackles, It speeds along, pauses for laughs, develops just enough character to keep you interested, and relies on the considerable skills of Donlevy, Stuart, Fowley, Hymer, and Jewell to keep things sparking as nothing and no one is exactly who they seem to be and complications arise. Almost every main character has a revelation to make that isn’t exactly what you expect, though one of them is pretty obvious no mater how hard I try to avoid giving it away.

   It might not seem Black Mask material, but you can imagine it i5n Dime Detective or Detective Fiction Weekly. It’s the kind of story you can imagine Richard Sale, Robert Reeves, John K. Butler, or Dwight Babcock might have written.

   Admittedly there is the always nagging problem in films of this era of the role Stepin Fetchit plays, mostly comedic relief as he infuriates Duke, but also fairly important to the plot in that his clumsiness is set up so he finds the microphone that tips Duke off he is being followed.

   Hymer’s Hazy is an odd character too, very much as if a Damon Runyon character had wandered into a Warner’s Gangster flick, his scenes with the little girl quite effecting, and his pride in having made a prune whip for the captive Anne even sweet.

   The ending as you might expect is slam bang, with guns blazing, but who gets shot by whom and why may surprise you.

   Plus I am a sucker for stories like this on a train, and if the finale isn’t on the train, the trip itself is a delight, and the cast fine companions for any journey. This is little gem I only saw for the first time recently, and never heard about, but will no doubt watch again.


TAKE AIM AT THE POLICE VAN. Nikkatsu, Japa, 1960. Original title: Sono gosôsha wo nerae: ‘Jûsangô taihisen’ yori. Michitaro Mizushima, Mari Shiraki, Misako Watanabe, Shinsuke Ashida, Shôichi Ozawa. Director: Seijun Suzuki.

   Although not a film noir, this Japanese crime film from 1960 has a lot going for it for fans of the genre from a purely visual point of view. Filmed in sharp, clear black and white, Take Aim at the Police Van avoids the big glittering neon-lit cities seen so often in movie staking place in Japan, and concentrates instead on the underbellies of small towns and in darkened streets and long stretches of mostly isolated highway (not always).

   The opening scene tells you right away where the title in English came from. A prison bus is shot at by a sniper on a hillside, killing not the guards, but two of the three convicts being transported inside. One of the guards, Daijirô Tamon (played by Michitaro Mizushima) is deemed responsible and is given a six months’ suspension.

   Rather than sit back and take a vacation, Tamon decides to track down the killer(s) and find out what kind of scheme is behind the murders, thus leading him into a complex tale of a prostitution ring, dead ends, false trails, fake deaths, and narrowly escaping death in a runaway gasoline tanker leaking a trail of flames behind it as it thunders down a highway.

   Even more importantly, every clue he follows seems to lead him back to a beautiful but totally enigmatic woman, Yuko Hamashima (Misako Watanabe), whose father apparently runs a brothel, but in whose absence illness Yuko is trying to keep the business going, but with competition being what it is, without as much success as she’d prefer.

   I am hazy on the details. There are a lot twists and turns in the tale that is told in this movie, with very abrupt changes of scenes, not only in time but in location. Another viewing may help, and I think I will, if only to savor the entire viewing experience again, the story itself be damned.


RED LIGHT. United Artists, 1949. George Raft, Virginia Mayo, Gene Lockhart, Raymond Burr, Henry (Harry) Morgan, Barton MacLane, Ken Murray, William Frawley. Directed by Roy Del Ruth.

   Watching old movies like this one, you begin to wonder all sorts of strange things, such as how some actors and actresses became well-known stars, and others didn’t. Take George Raft, for example. Take Virginia Mayo, for another , Neither one could act their way out of a dark room, not if you take this movie as a prime example of their work (and quite possibly you shouldn’t).

   Admittedly it’s a low budget crime drama, but that doesn’t stop all of the lower ranked players in the list of credits from showing them how it should be done, if they were paying attention. As the owner of a trucking company whose brother is killed in a bit of gangland revenge, George Raft is as dapper a dresser as ever, but he’s stiff as a board in any small matters such as facial expressions or simply walking across a room.

   As for Virginia Mayo, she had the looks and figure to be a star, I suppose, but her delivery here is as wooden as the board that Raft is as stiff as. The real star of this movie is Raymond Burr. In fact this was shown on TNT as part of a afternoon-long Salute to Raymond Burr, which shows that the people at TNT know what they are doing.

   Burr is the hoodlum who’s been sent up by Raft, and he’ s the one who hires Harry Morgan to wipe out Raft’s brother. Burr was a little overweight at this time of his career, but his dark, glowering eyes made him a perfect villain in any number of films of this same caliber. Morgan, before he began to make a name for himself in comedy roles, was also perfect as a series of dim-witted killers or former boxers who’d taken one too many on the chin.

   Whenever Burr is on screen, the story takes on life. Whenever he’s not, the temptation is to find the fast-forward button. Not a ”noir” film, except on occasion, but in reality an inspirational type of movie, a testament to the practice of leaving Gideon Bibles in every hotel room in the country. (*)

(*) And speaking of Gideon Bibles, it reminds me that the shooting (and a good deal of the subsequent investigation) takes place in the Carlton Hotel, San Francisco. Trivia question: what long-running radio/TV series was there that began almost every episode in the same hotel?

– Reprinted from Mystery*File #32, July 1991, in slightly revised form.




CASH ON DEMAND. 1961. Peter Cushing, André Morell, Richard Vernon, Norman Bird, Kevin Stoney. Director: Quentin Lawrence.

   With Frankenstein and Dracula as their figureheads, it is easy to forget just how versatile Hammer Film Studios actually were, with comedies, war films and even a couple of Robin Hood movies amongst their filmography. One of their early specialities was the crime thriller, which they focused on particularly in the 1950s, with a trilogy of Dick Barton films, the last Saint and a Sexton Blake film (which I really, really must find somehow) and it is crime they returned to here.

   This low-budget black-and-white effort from director Quentin Lawrence stars a bespectacled Peter Cushing as the prim and pernickety bank manager Harry Fordyce, who is visited at work by an urbane, avuncular and apparently experienced insurance investigator named Colonel Gore-Hepburn (André Morell). It seems to be a routine check on the bank’s security, but things turn sour when the Colonel reveals himself to be a bank robber holding Fordyce’s family hostage at home. Fordyce is forced to become the Colonel’s accomplice and help remove £90,000 from the bank’s vault.

   Played out in real-time, on just three sets, the film snares the viewer’s interest and won’t let it go. The irony of a man as authoritative and stiffly regimental as Fordyce being plunged into a situation in which – for once – he has no control neatly demonstrates just how much power he has so instantly lost. In Gore-Hepburn, he is confronted with a ruthlessness just as rigid and impersonal as his own and it is almost as if this Colonel is an even darker version of himself. It is, effectively, the Ghost of Christmas Future who speaks to Fordyce suavely from across his desk and, like Scrooge, he becomes a changed man because of it.

   The film’s yuletide setting emphasises this moral – a time of goodwill, spiritual rebirth and the importance of family and friends – but, for me, it could have been clearer just why Fordyce goes on to be so grateful to his staff. They help in a minor way but I think they could have done more if the charity of others is what the filmmakers were pointing towards.

   However, even if this ending is a little inarticulate, the scenes before it more than compensate. The robbery scenes, in particular, are thrilling and there is reliable support from Richard Vernon and an underused, but always welcome, Norman Bird.

   Cushing and Morell had, of course, played Holmes and Watson in Hammer’s 1959 hit The Hound of the Baskervilles and much enjoyment comes from watching these two fine actors spar again in what is essentially a two-hander. Morell must have been at particular ease as he had played his character in the television version broadcast several months earlier (under the somewhat anaemic title The Gold Inside).

   It seems strange today, but many TV series of the time – such as several stories from The Francis Durbridge Serial – would see a film studio recast and reshoot a television production on a slightly bigger budget. Sometimes, this meant seeing the (condensed) material in colour or, at least, on a much bigger screen than the small one in the corner at home. Cushing himself would participate in such a feature when he took on the role of The Doctor (or, more properly, ‘Dr Who’) in the two Dalek films.

   Biographer David Miller wrote in Peter Cushing: A Life in Film that the actor seemed more theatrical and mannered here than usual. I would prefer to think of the performance as intense, which is no surprise as Cushing always gave his all to a role, without any indication of irony. Perhaps he considered it a novelty to play a less than heroic character. Elsewhere, in The British ‘B’ Film, writers Steve Chibnall and Brian McFarlane list Cash on Demand as one of the best examples of its kind, calling it, “both tensely compelling and humanely rewarding.”

   Happily, it’s on YouTube, so Cash on Demand won’t be demanding any cash from us, though it would certainly be worth it.

Rating: ***



THE SHIP THAT DIED OF SHAME. General Film Distributors, UK, 1955. Continental Distributing, US, 1956, as PT Raiders. Richard Attenborough, George Baker, Bill Owen, Roland Culver, Bernard Lee, Virginia McKenna. Screenplay by John Whiting, Michael Relph & Basil Dearden, based on a story by Nicholas Monsarrat. Directed by Basil Dearden.

   This is an offbeat British noir with a touch of the supernatural, though underplayed and understated, that is unmistakable. George Hoskins (Richard Attenborough) and Bill Randall (George Baker Wexford, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service himself and as George Lazenby’s voice when he is posing as a member of the Royal College of Arms) and Birdie Dick (Bill Owen Compo of The Last of the Summer Wine) serve together on a Royal Navy Motor Gun Boat (a P.T. Boat in American jargon) raiding the French coast and attacking German installations at night and rescuing downed pilots in the Channel.

   When Bill’s wife (Virginia McKenna) is killed in the cottage where they live in a bombing raid his rather jolly swashbuckling war comes to and end. With the war at an end Bill finds himself at sixes and sevens until he runs into George who has a plan to buy their former boat and indulge in a bit of harmless smuggling.

   Smuggling and the British efforts to avoid excise taxes is a common theme in British history and literature from du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn, Graham Greene’s The Man Within, and J. Meade Falkner’s Moonfleet to more comic takes like Geoffrey Household’s “Brandy for the Parson,” and Compton Mackenzie’s Whiskey Galore, and the theme only grew more common with the wartime shortages and black-market during and after the war where shortages lasted well into the prosperous Fifties.

   George and Bill, with Birdie insisting on coming along, begin rather harmlessly and revive some of the spirit of their wartime adventures. Fooling Customs Inspector Sam Brewster (Bernard Lee, M from the James Bond films) and foiling pirates led by smooth baddie Major Fordyce (Roland Culver) are a throwback to the best days of the war when they struck quickly and silently along the French coast.

   Bill can almost forget the pain of what he lost, almost pretend that he has really escaped from the emptiness of his life.

   But George is greedy and seeks out Major Fordyce who can guarantee them higher pay and bigger risks. Attenborough was always equally adept at playing meek innocents and rather shady characters.

   Those risks come in the form of smuggling a man out of England, a dangerous mission attempted in a heavy fog and with a new element, sudden trouble with their ship, something that first becomes apparent to Birdie when he notes the ship doesn’t like what they are doing.

   And little wonder, because the man that Fordyce has them smuggling is a wanted child murderer.

   They barely get away and their passenger ends up overboard, but their luck has run out. Bill is ready to chuck it all and turn himself in when Fordyce and George, hoping to get away, murder Sam Brewster who is onto them and kidnap he and Birdie to get them safely to Portugal.

   But no one has counted on the weather or the whims of their once gallant ship.

   That faint, and it is very faint, hint that the ship is somehow aware of what it is being used for and ashamed is the main oddity in the story which otherwise would be a tough but standard British noir crime outing of the period with a better than average cast.

   Based on a story later expanded by Nicholas Monsarrat (The Cruel Sea, The Nylon Pirates, White Rajah) who was a bestselling novelist who wrote primarily of the sea and whose feel for that life was notable, the supernatural aspect is never overplayed. It works at the fringes and builds only at the big climax.

   The Ship That Died of Shame isn’t seen all that often, but it is worth catching. Currently it, and quite a few excellent films from the Thirties through the Sixties are available on Classic Reels a low price streaming service that adds one or two new films a day.

   In any case this is worth seeing.

Next Page »