Crime Films

THE UNDERWORLD STORY. United Artists, 1950. Dan Duryea, Herbert Marshall, Gale Storm, Howard Da Silva, Michael O’Shea, Mary Anderson, Harry Shannon, Roland Winters. Based on a story by Craig Rice. Director: Cy Endfield.

   There are two good reasons to watch this not-quite-noir crime film, and one of the them is Dan Duryea. As reporter Mike Reese, as brash as they come, he is bounced and then blacklisted from all of the big city newspapers. Taking a loan from mobster Howard Da Silva, the second reason to see this movie, he fast-talks his way into being a partner in a small weekly paper out in the suburbs, one owned by Gale Storm’s character.

   She hesitates, but you know Dan Duryea, or you probably do. She’s o match for his affable gift of gab, while all he while you can tell what he’s thinking: what it is that’s in it for him? When a black maid is accused of killing her employer, the wife of the son of one of the owners of one of the big city newspapers, he sees his chance to make a name for himself, and grabs it. No moss under this guy’s feet.

   Duryea’s character will keep you off balance all of the way through the movie, Just when, you wonder, will he cross all the way over and be “good”? In spite of the title, this is more of a murder mystery than it is a gangster film — but not a detective story, not at least as far as the viewer is concerned, since we know whodunit almost as son as he’s done it. It takes a while for Duryea and Storm to figure it out, though.

   And in case you’re wondering, there is a trace of romance in the air, but not much more than a trace. Every time you think the story’s going there, Duryea does something that simply snaps Gale Storm’s head back. Literally.


DANGEROUS TO KNOW. Paramount, 1938. Shown at Cinevent 1994. Anna May Wong, Akim Tamiroff, Gail Patrick, Lloyd Nolan, Harvey Stephens, Anthony Quinn, Roscoe Karns, Porter Hall. Based on the novel On the Spot (1931) by Edgar Wallace. Director:
Robert Florey. Shown at Cinevent 26, Columbus OH, May 1994.

   A film that many viewers liked a lot was Dangerous to Know with the unlikely, but dynamite team of Anna May Wong and Akim Tamiroff. Even dependably good Lloyd Nolan took a back seat to the potent emoting, all the more effective because they both gave restrained performances in roles that could have been served as grade-A ham.

   The film is based on an Edgar Wallace novel and play that starred Charles Laughton in the London production, and Wong played her role on Broadway and on the road in 1930-31. Tamiroff is Stephen Recka, a crime lord whose house is impeccably run by is mistress, Madame Lan Ying (Wong). (Hedda Hopper has a small role of a society matron who characterizes Wong as Recka’s “hostess,” with an inflection in her voice that leaves no douby about her opinion of Ying’s relationship to Recka.)

   The high point of the film (and its climax) occurs as Recka plays the organ and Lan Ying hovers, apparently waiting for the opportunity to kill traitorous Recka. (Tamiroff plays the crime lord with just the right blend of cultivation and ruthless cruelty to give the character charm and draw some audience sympathy.)

LADY GANGSTER. Warner Brothers, 1942. Faye Emerson, Julie Bishop, Frank Wilcox, Roland Drew, Jackie C. Gleason, Ruth Ford. Based on the play Women in Prison by Dorothy Mackaye and Carlton Miles. Director: Robert Florey (as Florian Roberts).

   A previous movie based on Dorothy Mackaye’s play was entitled Ladies They Talk About, a pre-Code film from 1932 starring Barbara Stanwyck and Preston Foster, also from Warner Brothers. Not having seen the earlier film, I can’t say for sure, but my sense is that Lady Gangster is by far the tamer of the two.

   Faye Emerson plays Dot Burton, a would-be actress who agrees to help a gang of bank robbers pull off their latest job. When the heist goes awry, she’s the only one who’s caught, and even though Kenneth Phillips (Frank Wilcox), a crusading radio commentator knows her from their youth, tries to help, his effort are of no avail, and off to women’s prison she goes.

   But not before she makes off with the loot ($40,000 worth) and hides it away with her landlady for future bargaining power. Even though in prison, not only do both the police and the gang want to know where the money is, but there is an on-and-off romance between Phillips and Dot Burton, complicated by many misunderstandings on both sides.

   It isn’t much of a story, but even though it’s a low budget movie, it’s from Warner Brothers, which means the production values are significantly higher than anything that ever came from a Poverty Row studio. It was interesting for me to see Faye Emerson in an actual movie role. She did just fine, but until now I knew her almost exclusively from her career on TV after the movies, especially game shows such as I’ve Got a Secret.

   Also of note was Jackie Gleason as a getaway driver for the gang, and a fellow who when I saw him slouching on a couch as Phillips’ assistant, I said to myself that he reminded me of Paul Drake on the Perry Mason TV series. Unknown to me at the time, as he wasn’t listed in the credits, that’s who he really was (William Hopper, billed as DeWolf Hopper).


DOLORES HITCHENS – Fools’ Gold. Doubleday Crime Club, hardcover, 1958. Included in Women Crime Writers: Four Suspense Novels of the 1950s. Pocket #1239, paperback, 1959. Library of America, hardcover, 2015.

BANDE À PART. Anouchka, France, 1964. Released in the US as Band of Outsiders. Anna Karina, Danièle Girard, Louisa Colpeyn, Chantal Darget, Sami Frey, Claude Brasseur. Based on the book Fools’ Gold, by Dolores Hitchens. Director: Jean-Luc Godard.

   A nasty piece of work about a nasty piece of work named Skip, barely graduated from juvenile delinquency, who has enthralled a cute blonde named Karen and a dim ne’er-do-well named Eddie with whom he hopes to pull a major caper. But this thing has wheels within wheels, and when a big-time professional crook gets wind of the deal and decides to hijack it, that’s only the beginning of the complications that ensue.

   I never read any Hitchens before, but I found this quite well done. She has a good feel for letting the characters shape the plot, and she isn’t bothered by a bit of clutter and untidiness as things play out in a nicely cluttered and untidy finale.

   Fools’ Gold was turned into a rather unlikely film called Bande à part (Band of Outsiders) in 1964 by the legendary and quite mad Jean-Luc Godard, who threw out half the plot but stayed surprisingly faithful to the rest. Bande stars Sami Frey, Claude Brasseur and the lovely Anna Karina as the aspiring felons, played out on actual locations rather than sets, giving the thing that rough, seat-of-the-pants look typical of Godard and perfect for a gritty crime movie.

   There’s also a bit more attention to the characters here. Hitchens’ cast was well-drawn and believable, but – how shall I put this?

   You know how in pornography, the characters just think about sex all the time? Of course you do. Well in crime novels the characters are pretty well preoccupied with crime. So it is in Hitchens’ novel, but not so in Godard’s film.

   Here, they have their secret thoughts, playful moments and private ambitions. And sometimes they break out of the story just to be young. The result is a film worth coming back to: mysterious, exciting, and highly satisfying.


THE MONSTER AND THE GIRL. Paramount, 1941. Ellen Drew, Philip Terry, George Zucco and Rod Cameron. Written by Stuart Anthony. Directed by Stuart Heisler.

   A unique mix of True Confession, Gangster Film and Monster Movie, done with a patina of Paramount gloss — perhaps too much so.

   Ellen Drew starts off the story telling us how she was lured into a life of shame, and how her brother (Philip Terry) got framed for murder trying to redeem her honor. There’s a bit too much of this, including a lengthy flashback to wholesome brother-and-sister life back in Grover’s Corners or wherever, where he’s the Church Organist and she’s eager to go out and make it in the Big City.

   Eventually Ellen heads for the bright lights, and we get a bit more romantic drama as she meets a nice young man (Robert Paige), falls in love, and marries him. And about the time an astute viewer starts asking “Where the hell’s the monster?” there’s a nice bit where the kindly old man who marries them shows a shoulder holster.

   At which point we segue into Gangster Film territory. It seems this romance has all been part of elaborate and somewhat unlikely scheme to lure our Ellen into prostitution –only hinted at here, but very broadly hinted.

   Well we’ve all; had relationships like that, haven’t we? Anyhow, her brother Phillip Terry (remember him?) gets wind of the whole shameful thing, quits pounding the organ and comes after the rat who done her wrong.

   But he’s up against a cold deck because the gang here includes Paul Lukas, Joseph Calleia, Marc Lawrence and Gerald Mohr, and the astute viewer (remember him?) won’t be surprised to see them quickly rub out a gangland rival, callously pin the crime on Phil, and swiftly get him railroaded to the Chair by DA-for-hire Onslow Stevens.

   That’s when George Zucco comes on — and high time, too — as a benign (for him) Mad Doctor who wants to advance Science by transplanting a human brain into a gorilla. Okay, if that’s what the kids are doing these days, that’s fine. There’s a nice brain-transplant scene, and finally we get to the Monster Movie as the gorilla-with-Phil’s-brain escapes to wreak vengeance on the bad guys.

   Any Monster-Lover who has lasted this long should enjoy a last twenty minutes or so of creepy menace and building tension as the bad guys get their brutal comeuppance. To his credit, director Stuart Heisler gets a lot of visual interest out of the ape prowling about the city rooftops and fire escapes, and it never looks as silly as it should. Then too, George Barrows’ gorilla mask seems unusually expressive here, evincing sorrow, alarm and rage from appropriate camera angles.

   But basically what you get here is about a third of a monster movie, and a long wait for it. The Monster parts make satisfying viewing, but what it takes to get there…. Well maybe that’s why God gave us Fast-Forward.


CRIME OF PASSION. United Artists, 1957. Barbara Stanwyck, Sterling Hayden, Raymond Burr, Fay Wray, Virginia Grey, Royal Dano. Original story and screenplay: Jo Eisinger. Director: Gerd Oswald.

   Call it what you will: a crime film, a film noir, or a proto-feminist melodrama. But make no mistake about it. Crime of Passion is most definitely a Barbara Stanwyck vehicle. So much so that one could say that Stanwyck, who is front and center throughout the proceedings, is the auteur of this United Artists release. Directed by craftsman Gerd Oswald, this somewhat average black and white thriller also benefits from the presence of co-stars and supporting cast members including Sterling Hayden, Raymond Burr, and a young Robert Quarry as a newsroom worker.

   Stanwyck portrays Kathy Ferguson, a tough as nails San Francisco newspaper columnist. She’s a career woman with no desire to marry and settle down. Not until she meets visiting Los Angeles detective Lieutenant Bill Doyle (Hayden), who is up north searching for a Southern California woman accused of killing her husband. Soon enough, Kathy and Bill are married and living a seemingly idyllic suburban existence in the San Fernando Valley. But soon suburban dinner parties and boredom get to Kathy. It’s clear that she wants more in life. Both for herself and for Bill, whom she thinks is deserving of a better position in the police force.

   Enter Bill’s superior at the LAPD. When Kathy meets Inspector Tony Pope (Burr), she takes an immediate interest in his passion for solving difficult cases. Soon, however, the passion between the two takes a more sordid turn, with Kathy and Tony sharing a night together. When Tony decides that it was all a mistake, Kathy is despondent. And never underestimate a character portrayed by Barbara Stanwyck, especially when she has access to a gun.

   Despite Stanwyck’s formidable screen presence, Crime of Passion never quite gels as a movie. Yes, there are a few plot holes and implausibilities. But those aren’t what end up making this movie an interesting but not particularly memorable affair. No. It’s the fact that, while the plot may have worked well enough on paper, the movie’s story — the radical transformation of Kathy from a tough single newspaperwoman into a helplessly in love housewife and then into a scheming and impassioned killer — feels too forced. It’s this artificiality that makes this particular Stanwyck film a pale imitation of so many of her other works.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

THE DETECTIVE. 20th Century Fox, 1968. Frank Sinatra, Lee Remick, Ralph Meeker, Jack Klugman, Horace McMahon, Lloyd Bochner, William Windom, Tony Musante, Al Freeman Jr. Screenplay by Abby Mann, based on the novel by Roderick Thorp. Director: Gordon Douglas.

   Frank Sinatra puts in a terrific performance as Joe Leland, a hard-nosed, tough New York City detective who lives his life according to his own sense of personal honor. He’s very much the white knight in a corrupt society, one plagued with drug abuse, poverty, and greed. The Detective is an unusually gritty, almost noir, film that isn’t particularly well directed, but is nevertheless worth a look.

   When Leland is tasked with solving a brutal murder of man known to be a homosexual, he must not only race against time to solve the crime if he is to get his promotion, he also needs to be cognizant of the sensitive nature of the case (this is 1968, not 2017). He later learns, however, that the man he sent to the chair for the heinous crime wasn’t the guilty party and that his latest case – the apparent suicide of a businessman at a racetrack – is related to the aforementioned murder. It’s a solid plot that, despite some poor editing choices, all comes together in the end.

   The plot also delves deep his personal life. Although he’s a good cop, all is not well at home for Leland. He’s married, but separated. Understandably so, given that his wife, a sociology professor (Lee Remick) is essentially a sex addict and has repeatedly cheated on him. Leland doesn’t much care that she’s going to see a psychiatrist or that she knows she needs to work through her issues. A cheating wife to him is against his personal code of how things are supposed to be between a husband and his wife. So it’s splitsville for the two of them.

   Fortunately, he’s got a buddy in fellow cop, the very Jewish Dave Schoenstein (Jack Klugman) who provides the emotional support he seems to need, but would never ask for. It’s Sinatra and Klugman, along with Ralph Meeker, who portrays a sleazy and corrupt cop, who are really what make the film work.

   Because what doesn’t work in The Detective – and I can’t be emphatic enough on this – is its reliance on flashbacks to tell the story of how Leland and his wife met and how their marriage fell apart. In fact, it may be the single worst use of flashbacks I’ve seen in a movie. Indeed, not ten minutes into the movie, right after the scene in which Leland discovers the mutilated body of the gay socialite, does the film shift to a nearly twenty minute flashback that has nothing to do with the crime. I almost wanted to stop watching. I’m glad I didn’t because the second hour of the movie, the one without flashbacks, is unquestionably superior to the first.


VICTIM. Allied Film Makers, UK, 1961. Dirk Bogarde, Sylvia Syms, Dennis Price, Peter McEnery, Derren Nesbitt, John Barrie, Hilton Edwards, Margaret Diamond. Written by Janet Green and John McCormick. Directed by Basil Dearden.

   This is gripping and unusual: A film with a Cause that doesn’t pound a drum or beat its chest, content to make its case with a taut, involving, thriller-style story.

   Peter McEnery opens the film as a young man on the run from the law, desperately seeking help from a rather odd circle of acquaintances who either can’t do much or reject him outright, including Dirk Bogarde as a rising and happily married barrister, who threatens to call the Police if McEnery bothers him again.

   This sets the tone for a noirish chase film, sustained even after McEnery gets busted and kills himself in Jail, which is when Dirk learns McEnery was being blackmailed for illegal homosexual activit — and died trying to protect him. Filled with grief and anger, he resolves to go after the blackmailers responsible for the death of a man whose only crime was loving him.

   Of course it’s not all that simple, not for a married man, and to their credit the makers of this film give due regard to the emotional conflicts of his wife (Sylvia Sims) without slowing the pace a bit. In fact, we very quickly get the idea that Dirk is up against something big and very nasty. There’s a sinister blind man who overhears the gossip at a crypto-gay bar and plots to make “collections;” a well-dressed habitué who seems to keep a sharp eye on everyone there, and a beefy young man on a motorcycle who just enjoys breaking things.

   Faced with massive odds, Bogarde pushes through the seamy underworld with only his wits and his own resolve for support, and in a nice bit of understated irony finds himself shunned by the people he’s trying to help—just as he dismissed McEnery early on.

   Along the way we get a bit of social commentary from sympathetic players who deplore the laws against homosexual conduct (this is 1961 remember), but they don’t stop the action to make speeches about it, and toward the end, writers Green & McCormick (a married couple with some fine films to their credit) indulge in a delightful bit of misdirection before confronting Bogarde and the viewer with the evil genius behind the blackmail racket.

   And it’s here where Victim really excels. I won’t reveal the surprise, but the identities and motives of the “Gang” but they really ring true, adding a frisson of personal insight to a film that was already a dandy noir thriller. Catch this one.


GUN MOLL. Million Dollar Productions, 1938. Also released as Gang Smashers. Nina Mae McKinney, Laurence Criner, Monte Hawley and Mantan Moreland. Written by Ralph Cooper and Hazel Barsworth. Produced by Harry M. Popkin. Directed by Leo C. Popkin.

   This one surprised me.

   Readers who hang on to my every word will know I’m a big fan of all sorts of strange movies, including those made decades ago with all-black casts for all-black audiences, back when segregation was more tangible than it is today. There’s a lot of raw talent in these films, showcasing performers like Mantan Moreland, Bill Robinson, Herb Jeffries, Ethel Waters, Clarence Muse… I could go on, but you get the idea.

   Unfortunately the fine talent is often obscured by poor production values and technical teams unfamiliar with technique: poor sound, bad lighting and amateurish acting are the order of the day for these films, shot on schedules and budgets that would have defeated even the lowest of low-budget Hollywood producers.

   Imagine my surprise then, when I discovered Gun Moll, a cheap but near-professional effort produced by none other than Harry M. Popkin, very early in his career. And again, those readers who weep with delight at my smile will recall immediately my review of Champagne for Caesar where I singled Producer Popkin out for praise: his other efforts include And Then There Were None, D.O.A. and The Thief, but he got his start out there on the ragged edge of film-making, doing films the establishment ignored or despised.

   And doing them well. Gun Moll crackles with the sort of pace one associates with the early Warners gangster pics. Beautiful Nina Mae McKinney stars as an investigator working undercover as a singer in the nightclub used by gang boss Monte Hawley as a front for his Protection Racket — which gives her an excuse to provide some fine musical interludes backed by a snappy jazz band, while sneaking about the place doing whatever undercover gals do in the movies.

   About this time Laurence Criner shows up in the George Raft part as a hired gun on loan from another gang, and if you can’t guess that he’s really another Under Cover Man, well you’re in good company because Ms. McKinney doesn’t tumble either.

   Years later this was used in a Claire Trevor / Fred MacMurray film, but that’s a review for another time. Suffice it to say that things fall into place just in time for a well-paced chase scene followed by a Cagney-esque slug fest, done with the kind of vigor and professionalism that normally graces much bigger-budgeted movies.

   In fact, Gun Moll is marked by assured handling and effects normally reserved for more respectable movies, tricked out with stylish montages, clever editing and a sense of pace all too rare in B movies. And of course it languished unnoticed as producer Popkin moved on to bigger and (frankly) better things.

   But I’ll always have a soft spot for this one.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

THE MAN FROM HONG KONG. British Empire Films, Australia, 1975. Released in the US as Dragon Flies. Jimmy Wang Yu, George Lazenby, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Roger Ward, Ros Spiers, Rebecca Gilling, Sammo Kam-Bo Hung. Director: Brian Trenchard-Smith.

   There’s no shortage of fisticuffs and fantastically choreographed martial arts fight scenes in The Man From Hong Kong. Directed by Ozploitation auteur Brian Trenchard-Smith, this entertaining, if deeply uneven, action movie features martial arts legend Jimmy Wang Wu as the titular character and one-time James Bond portrayer George Lazenby as his nemesis.

   Occasionally uneven in its pacing, this thrill ride of a movie nevertheless moves along at a steady clip, with bloody and brutal fight sequences interspaced with calm, romantic interludes that seem oddly out of place. But with some great car chases and a 1970s disco-inspired soundtrack, The Man from Hong Kong doesn’t stray from its mission of providing viewers with pure escapist entertainment for very long.

   The plot. Inspector Fang Sing Leng (Jimmy Wang Yu) of the Hong Kong Royal Police Force Special Branch heads to Sydney in order to extradite a drug runner (future Hong Kong director and producer Sammo Hung) held by the local authorities.

   But when a lone assassin murders Leng’s prisoner in broad daylight, Leng decides that he’s going to take down the entire international drug cartel run by an Australian businessman named Wilton (Lazenby).

   Leng fights his way through Sydney, leaving death and mayhem in his wake. But he’s determined to bring down Wilton, no matter what the cost. And when Wilton’s men murder Leng’s Australian love interest, all bets are off. Leng is set to wreak havoc. And wreak havoc he does. Look for the scene in which he stuffs a live grenade in Wilton’s mouth. It is pure grindhouse mayhem.

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