Crime Films


Q & A. TriStar, 1990. Nick Nolte, Timothy Hutton, Armand Assante, Patrick O’Neal, Jenny Lumet. Based on th ebook by Edwin Torres. Screenplay and director: Sidney Lumet.

   Long after you’ve forgotten the labyrinthian plot of Q & A, you will remember Nick Nolte. In Sidney Lumet’s gritty film, Nolte’s character isn’t so much an actor as he is a force of nature. Brutal, strong, domineering, and aggressive are just several words to describe NYPD Lieutenant Mike Brennan. A man so devoted to his career that he seems to have no identity beyond it, Brennan is not just a blatant racist and homophobe.

   He’s a dangerous killer, a man who has been so thoroughly corrupted that, at some level, he no longer knows who exactly he is supposed to answer to. Is it the corrupt lawyer in the DA’s office who has dirt on him? Is it the Mafia boss whose dirty work he is willing to do, if it means murdering a Puerto Rican drug dealer, a man no one in respectable society is going to miss anyway?

   When Brennan starts feeling the heat from Assistant DA Reilly (Timothy Hutton), he becomes unhinged with rage. Willing to do next to anything for the sake of self-preservation, Brennan embarks upon a brutal murder spree that takes him from the mean streets of Harlem to sunny San Juan. In his sights is drug lord Bobby Texador (Armand Assante), a stereotypical bad guy with a conscience, who is now living with Reilly’s former flame (Jenny Lumet).

   While the first half of the movie is quite compelling, the latter hour ends up getting bogged down in multiple plot threads that become somewhat difficult to follow. Everything eventually ties up together, but in such a manner that makes one realize that certain scenes either weren’t absolutely necessary to make the film work (think: the love triangle between Hutton, Assante, and Lumet) or went on too long.

   It is after all the scenes with Nolte that makes this lesser known Lumet feature worth watching. Apparently, he gained forty pounds for the role, believing that his character needed to be a physically imposing presence. It was a good decision. Nolte’s Mike Brennan belongs in the pantheon of cinematic corrupt cops. He’s that memorable a character. Loud, vulgar, and brash, he’s terrifying to the two detectives tasked with investigating him. For good reason.


  CANON CITY. Eagle-Lion Films, 1948. Scott Brady, Jeff Corey, Whit Bissell, Stanley Clements, Charles Russell, DeForest Kelley, Ralph Byrd, Mabel Paige, (Warden) Roy Best as himself. Narrator: Reed Hadley. Cinematography: John Alton. Screenwriter-Director: Crane Wilbur.

   Film noir aficionados looking for a movie that has previously escaped their attention should look no further than Canon City, a surprisingly effective crime film put out by Eagle-Lion Films. Written and directed by Crane Wilbur, who also penned both the story and script for He Walked By Night, also from 1948 and reviewed here, Canon City notably features stark black and white cinematography by John Alton, who is perhaps best known today for his ongoing collaborations with director Anthony Mann.

   Traversing genres, the semi-documentary film named after the Colorado city where the action takes place is simultaneously a work of social realism in the 1930s Warner Brothers mold, a prison break movie, and a home invasion thriller.

   Scott Brady, in his first leading role, portrays Jim Sherbondy, a doomed protagonist if there ever were one. As teenager who got mixed up with a bad crowd and whose subsequent criminal path led him to a lengthy sentence of incarceration for murdering a cop, Sherbondy is now doing his best to reform himself within the confines of the prison walls. But trouble seems to follow him wherever he goes. Other convicts planning a prison break exploit his good reputation with the guards and snooker him into becoming a key player in a prison break.

   Leading the pack of thieves and murderers is Carl Schwartzmiller. Jeff Corey takes this role and lends it an infectious energy. We know his character is a miscreant, yet in Corey’s more than capable hands, he fascinates us with his sardonic wit and fatalistic worldview as much as repels us. Look for the diabolically tense scene wherein Schwartzmiller takes an elderly couple hostage in their home. The camera follows the old woman, carrying both a hammer and an orange, as she slowly creeps up on the criminal ringleader, hoping to smash his skull. Schwartzmiller turns around and notices her presence, asking what she has with her. She offers him an orange. He gladly accepts and begins to peel it.

   A trifling scene perhaps. But one that only reinforces my belief that Corey remains one of the great character actors of that era.

WINGS OF DANGER. Hammer Films, UK, 1952. Lippert Pictures, US, 1952 as Dead on Course. Zachary Scott, Robert Beatty, Naomi Chance, Kay Kendall, Colin Tapley, Arthur Lane, Harold Lang, Diane Cilento. Screenwriter: John Gilling, based on the novel Dead on Course by Mansell Black (Elleston Trevor aka Trevor Dudley Smith}. [Note: The movie credits also give Packham Webb as a co-author of the book.] Director: Terence Fisher.

   Zachary Scott, in my opinion, made a better villain in the movies he made than he did a hero. He had a beautiful speaking voice, but he seemed to have a perpetual semi-scowl on his face, the thought being that he had some sort of subtle dislike of what he was doing or who he was dealing with.

   But in Wings of Danger he is the hero, and if it doesn’t work out well, which I don’t think it does, I’d be the first to admit that it wasn’t all his fault. The story doesn’t allow his character much range at all, and you really have to wonder what he might have been able to do with a better script.

   He plays a post-WWII cargo pilot who’s been successfully hiding the blackout spells he’s been having from the firm he’s working for, and when he tries to stop a buddy (Robert Beatty) from taking off into stormy weather, the buddy threatens to tell all and flies off anyway. And his plane is never heard from again.

   Well, the wreckage is, but there’s no body to be found. The police are interested — smuggling is suspected — and Scott’s character (a fellow named Van Ness) is implicated. Van Ness’s other motive for snooping around is keep everything a secret from his friend’s sister and father, who idolize him.

   You might be thinking of The Third Man right about here, and rightly so. There is a lot more to the plot than I’m going to go into, but rather than adding to the story, it makes it all the more muddled. As an example of film noir, the story’s adequate. The photography, within the limitations of a low budget, is even more so.


CROOKS ANONYMOUS. Independent Artists, UK, 1962. Leslie Phillips, Stanley Baxter, Wilfrid Hyde-White, Pauline Jameson, James Robertson Justice, Raymond Huntley and Julie Christie. Written by Jack Davies and Henry Blyth. Directed by Ken Annakin.

   An unexpected Christmas movie.

   Leslie Philips stars as a smooth thief with a jaunty front, given to cigarette holders, poking people with his umbrella and calling everyone “Sport.” As the film opens, he seems rather good at his trade — there’s a clever scene in his apartment where his stripper girlfriend, Babette LaTour (Julie Christie!) challenges him to show her one thing there that isn’t stolen. He casts about a bit, finally points to her picture on the mantle and adds, “Not the frame of course.”

   Persuaded by love to go straight he enrolls in Crooks Anonymous, an institution that reforms crooks, run by Wilfrid Hyde-White, but the bulk of the job is carried by Stanley Baxter, and quite well too, in a variety of disguises as a nasty “Guardian Angel.” We first see him, disguised as a priest, seating himself on a park bench beside two attractive young ladies, and pulling out a book titled Flogging.

   Phillips’ crash course in Honesty is quite amusing, but the film really kicks into high gear when he lands a job as a department store Santa and gets locked in the store on Christmas Eve, with a safe full of untraceable money.

   I won’t go into details here, but it’s riotous fun, perfectly played by a host of British character actors who get a laugh out of every scene. I particularly liked Raymond Huntley (the unspeakable husband in So Evil My Love (reviewed here ) as a nasty store manager, and James Robertson Justice as his nastier boss.

   The Holidays have peaked and waned, but if you can get a look at this one, I guarantee a Holly-Jolly Post-Christmas.


KIND LADY MGM, 1935. Aline MacMahon, Basil Rathbone, Mary Carlisle, Frank Albertson, Dudley Digges, Murray Kinnell, Justine Chase, Eiley Malyon, Barbara Shields, and Donald Meek. Screenplay by Bernard Schubert, from the play by Edward Chodorov, from the story by Hugh Walpole (which is a bit of a downer). Directed by George B. Seitz.

   A real treat: literate, suspenseful, perfectly played and subtly directed.

   Aline MacMahon carries her end skillfully as a middle-aged woman who has become a bit too retiring – not cutting off social ties exactly, but fraying them considerably, perfectly content to stay at home in her fine London townhouse attended by her cook and maid.

   Then, on Christmas Eve, she sees a penniless sidewalk artist (Basil Rathbone in a chameleonic mode) outside her house, invites him in, and listens sympathetically as he speaks of his wife and child. He leaves with a bit of charity and her expensive cigarette lighter, and she thinks no more of it until he calls again a few nights later and tries to sell her one of his paintings.

   He points out his wife, waiting outside, and (as if on cue) she collapses in the street. Rathbone runs for a doctor (Murray Kinnell) who says the woman must be put in bed immediately, apparently thinking she lives there, and carries her to an upstairs bedroom for a few days’ rest.

   And thus has her home been invaded. Rathbone, suddenly imperious, irritates the cook into quitting, browbeats the maid, and when some friends of his sick wife come to call, they insist — forcefully — on staying, imprisoning Ms MacMahon in her own house, then proceed to sell the furnishings and take over her bank accounts as they plan her untimely end.

   The basic story is cunningly wrought, opened out nicely by scenarist Bernard Schubert without losing the essential claustrophobic nature of the piece. The players do quite well by it, notably Rathbone starting off poor-but-proud and moving on to insufferable. Dudley Digges radiates good-natured cheer like fingernails on a chalkboard, and his wife and daughter….

   Well, this is a subtle touch that screams for attention. Director George B. Seitz uses body language cunningly throughout the film: Basil Rathbone seems to tower over everyone and stand entirely too close. Dudly Digges doesn’t sit on the couch; he sprawls. As soon as his wife enters the house she starts fondling the table legs(!), and the daughter can’t keep her hands off things, picking up delicate knick-knacks, rifling through makeup, and generally behaving like a klepto-fetishist. The whole effect is of an alien invasion, and it’s damn creepy.

   Aline MacMahon shines throughout this part of the film, but she does it quietly. Drugged by Rathbone & co., she resists the opiates but tries not to let them see, keeping her movements restrained to the point where sometimes we the viewers aren’t sure how clearly she’s thinking. Then she slips someone a note, gives a veiled warning, or otherwise lets us know there’s more going on here than meets the eye.

   Two other performances of note: as Aline’s nephew-in-law who senses something amiss, Frank Albertson throws in a brash portrayal that seems to have come from another movie — completely at odds with the other players, but somehow right for the part. Five year later he was doing the same schtick in Man-Made Monster to less effect.

   And then there’s Donald Meek, the eternal milquetoast, displaying delightful heroism as a little guy with a stubborn streak. It’s a surprising, comic and totally delightful moment in a film that kept me watching with equal parts suspense and pleasure.

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.

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