Crime Films


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.


RIFF-RAFF. RKO, 1947. Pat O’Brien, Walter Slezak, Anne Jeffreys, Percy Kilbride and Jerome Cowan. Written by Martin Rackin. Directed by Ted Tetzlaff.

   I resisted watching this for weeks because I find Pat O’Brien pretty easy to resist, but when I got around to it I found myself bowled over by a film of dark beauty and considerable wit.

   Riff-Raff opens with more than six minutes of no dialogue: just fluid, suspenseful camerawork as a man with a mysterious briefcase boards a cargo plane from Peru to Panama. He doesn’t finish the trip, but his briefcase does, in possession of his killer, who soon seeks the protection of Dan Hammer (Pat O’Brien of course), Panama’s resident hard-boiled fixer. The guy with the briefcase meets a predictable fate, triggering a search for its contents, and setting the story proper in pleasing if predictable motion.

   Someone spent some time fleshing out O’Brien’s character, and it pays off. Hammer’s office is a seedy affair in a run-down building, guarded by a sleeping dog. He knows every chiseler and cop in town, and everyone in between, all this conveyed with sharp dialogue and a parade of evocative bit players doing their bits.

   Plot-wise, it’s a standard riff on The Maltese Falcon, with Walter Slezak’s effeminate fat man and his hired gunsels looking for the missing whosis, Anne Jeffreys as a beauty who isn’t all she seems , and even Falcon‘s Jerome Cowan as a double-dealer in on the game. The wonder is that Riff-Raff is done with so much style and wit, the discerning viewer won’t give a damn – just sit back and be dazzled.

   I should give a special mention to Percy Kilbride as Hammer’s side-kick, a part written & played to laid-back perfection, and one that got a few laughs out of me. There, I’ve mentioned it. And now a word about our Hero:

   For most of this film, Pat O‘Brien is just fine, in a jaded, salty way, as the kind of American who gets stuck in a seedy/exotic milieu like Panama. Think of Rick in Casablanca and you’ll get the idea, but O’Brien seems a little sweatier, sloppier, and more true to life… or as true as you can get in a movie like this.

   It’s only when the young and lovely Anne Jeffreys falls for him that the whole thing don’t work no more. More than twenty years her senior, fat and balding, he just couldn’t carry the romantic parts for me – much as I’d like to think that lovely young ladies are drawn to old bald guys like moths to the gaudy neon sign above a cheap barroom.

   No, it just doesn’t click. But it’s the only weakness of a film I enjoyed a lot, and you should too.


VIGILANTE FORCE. United Artists, 1976. Kris Kristofferson, Jan-Michael Vincent, Victoria Principal, Bernadette Peters, Brad Dexter, Judson Pratt, David Doyle, Antony Carbone, Andrew Stevens, Shelly Novack. Screenwriter-Director: George Armitage.

   Vigilante Force is one of those blue-collar action movies from the mid-1970s designed to appeal to a White working class demographic looking for some simple escapism and a familiar social milieu. Set in a fictional small town in California’s interior (somewhere near Bakersfield I would imagine) where newfound oil wealth is destroying the fabric of society, this film is as much about the setting as the story. That’s probably for the best, given how flimsy the plot of the movie actually is.

   Jan-Michael Vincent, before he became one of Hollywood’s hottest items, portrays Ben Arnold, a laconic working class widower living with his young daughter and new girlfriend. When the police chief of his town gets overwhelmed by the sheer amount of criminal activity taking place there due to an influx of oil workers, Ben seeks out his somewhat estranged brother Aaron (Kris Kristofferson), a Vietnam Veteran working somewhere in Southern California and convinces him to return home and to become a deputized peace officer.

   But it doesn’t take long before Ben realizes that Aaron and the men he has brought with him aren’t going to play nice with either the criminals or the townsfolk. In fact, Aaron has his own nefarious plans for his hometown, a place for which he has utter contempt.

   There’s a lot of talk, some shooting, a lot more talk with low tech dialogue, and then a final action sequence which isn’t all that spectacular. Kristofferson was a far better actor and capable of so much more than he was given in this one. As for Vincent, he’d go on to bigger and better things in the 1980s before suffering a severe career decline the following decade.

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