Crime Films

Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:         

THE MAN WITH TWO FACES. Warner Brothers/First National Pictures, 1934. Edward G. Robinson, Mary Astor, Ricardo Cortez, Mae Clarke, Louis Calhern, Arthur Byron, John Eldredge, David Landau. Director: Archie Mayo.

    The Man with Two Faces is a classy Warners programmer from 1934, based on a clever play by George Kauffman and Alexander Woollcott, and directed, in his usual dazed-and-confused style, by Archie Mayo, who ruined or nearly ruined, a lot of otherwise memorable projects – Svengali and The Petrified Forest, to name a couple.

   The plot features Edward G. Robinson as a pleasantly hammy Broadway actor/director whose sister (Mary Astor) comes under the eerie spell of a palpable con man and Absolute Bounder, played by Louis Calhern. When Calhern threatens to ruin Astor’s life, Eddie decides to kill him and plans to get away with it by doing the deed disguised as a colorful and totally fictitious character based on his theatrical experience.

   As I say, Archie Mayo’s direction of this thing is nothing to write home to Mom about, but it’s more than saved by the Kauffman-Woollcott script and the appropiately over-the-top playing of its leads.

   Louis Calhern is particularly memorable as The Nasty, and the script gives him all sorts of interesting bits. I especially liked the way he carried two rats around in a little cage, for the thrill having them at his mercy and because he enjoys seeing the servants scramble to clean out their cage and bring them fresh cheese.

   There’s also a neat turn by David Landau as a deceptively lackadaisical homicide cop. In all, a film well worth the time.

Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:         

  DAVID GOODIS – Nightfall. Messner, hardcover, 1947. Reprinted as The Dark Chase. Lion #133, paperback, 1953. Other reprints include: Lion LB131, paperback, 1956; Black Lizard, paperback, 1986; Centipede Press, softcover (introduction by Bill Pronzini).

  NIGHTFALL. Columbia, 1957. Aldo Ray, Anne Bancroft, Brian Keith, James Gregory, Jocelyn Brando, Rudy Bond. Screenplay by Sterling Silliphant. Directed by Jacques Tourneur.

   The book is really too quirky to make a satisfactory thriller, but if you’re just looking for a fine read, you can’t beat it.

   The story opens with Jim Vanning, a commercial artist eking out a living in New York City while hiding out from the law and a trio of very personable bank robbers who are interested in the loot from a job that Vanning inadvertently disappeared with and then lost.

   Like I say, this is just too quirky to work out as a crime story, and purists may lose interest quickly as the story spins out one unlikely move after another. There’s a cop straight out of Woolrich, with his own way of working and nothing else to do but follow Vanning around for months at a time; a girl who falls for him and even believes his cockamamie story for no apparent reason; and a plot twist that defies all logic. I could go on, but you get the point; if you’re looking for realism or even plausibility, this ain’t for you.

   For those who can relate to Goodis’s own personal universe however, it’s a treat. Not as dark and self-defeatist as the later books, but full of that sense of a small man struggling against a very big and very dark universe.

   Goodis’s unique gift was in seeing heroism in the least of us, He didn’t ennoble his bums, winos and working stiffs; he simply made heroes of them, and somehow this seems more gratifying (and much less condescending) than the efforts of many better-respected and more overtly socially conscious writers. His people come out of the gutters to live on the pulpy page, and I enjoy him all the more for it.

   Nightfall was written just after Goodis’s popular success with Dark Passage, but it wasn’t filmed for another ten years, when Columbia showed the good sense to hire writer Sterling Silliphant, who had already adapted Five Against the House (1958) and would go on to The Lineup (’58), and got Jacques Tourneur — of Cat People (1942) and Out of the Past (’48) — to direct.

   Together Silliphant and Tourneur manage to leech the improbabilities out of the story while keeping big tasty chunks of Goodis’s sharp dialogue and his more-than-pulp characterizations.

   Brian Keith is particularly effective as a thoughtful bank robber, played off perfectly against Rudy Bond’s dumb-but-sensitive killer. In the leads, Aldo Ray and Anne Bancroft carry the less colorful parts nicely, but they pale in comparison to James Gregory and Jocelyn Brando as a patient detective and his loving wife.

   Silliphant also manages to throw in a nifty finale, with a Mexican stand-off in snow-bound Wyoming and a serial style cliff-hanger as Ray and Bond struggle aboard a gargantuan snow plow headed right for the good guys. Maybe it ain’t in the book, but it provides a lively cap to a film that captures something of Goodis’s compelling style.

INTO THE DARKNESS: Investigating Film Noir.          

   The course runs concurrently with the Turner Classic Movies “Summer of Darkness” programming event—airing 24 hours of films noir every Friday in June and July. This is the deepest catalog of film noir every presented by TCM (and perhaps any network), and provides an unprecedented opportunity for those interested in learning more to watch over 100 classic movies as they investigate “The Case of Film Noir.”

   For more information, click here.

   Thanks and a tip of the hat to Michael Shonk for passing the info along.

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:          

A KING WITHOUT DISTRACTION. Gaumont, France, 1963. Original title: Un roi sans divertissement. Claude Girard, Colette Renard, Charles Vanel, Pierre Repp, Albert Remy, Rene Blanchard. Story and screenplay by Jean Giono, based on his novel. Directed by Francois Leterrier.

   I first saw this film at a revival house in Paris on the Champs-Élysées in French with neither dubbing nor subtitles. Luckily I was married to a tall blonde French dictionary with legs that went on forever, so my troublesome French was less a problem than it would have normally been. I have been trying to see this film again since then and only just found it on YouTube, still in French, still without dubbing or subtitles, but my French much improved however much I miss the dictionary.

   The number of Americans who have actually seen this must be infinitesimal. It’s seldom mentioned by critics or historians and never listed with films of this genre. I know it originally was not in Hubin, but that may have been corrected. I don’t know that it ever played in this country or has been available on video — at least in Region 1 format. [FOOTNOTE] It is unlikely most people know it to look for it in the first place.

   Mystery, detective, Film Noir, psychological thriller, and one of the handsomest films you will ever see that you probably never heard of, how it came about that this was never mentioned by genre or film historians I can’t say. I only found it referenced once in a series of paperbacks book on various film genres published by Paperback Library in the sixties.

   This film evokes the fatalistic doomed world of Cornell Woolrich and the desperation of some of David Goodis, James M. Cain, or Jim Thompson’s protagonists as well as any film I have ever seen. There are echoes of Graham Greene. John Dickson Carr, and even the Ellery Queen post The Door Between, the one that had serious moral issues about his work. That’s all the more remarkable because the film takes place in a remote village in France circa 1840.

   It is 1840 and Captain Langlois (Claude Giraud)of the gendarmerie has been dispatched to a small mountainous village buried in snow and white fog in the Aubrac region of France, where the former procurer de roi (king’s prosecutor) played by veteran Charles Vanel has summoned him to help deal with a series of brutal deaths. Enlisting the aid of le maire (Albert Remy) and le cure (Rene Blanchard) the Captain settles in at the Inn owned by attractive Clara (Colette Renard) and begins his investigation.

   The evidence soon suggests a lone wolf is responsible for the deaths, a lobo, so the Captain, (who stumbles into more than he discovers) arranges a massive hunt. The Captain tracks down the wolf, corners it, and kills it, but from somewhere in the crowd when he kills the wolf, he hears someone say: “At least he won’t be bored.”

   That sticks in the Captains head, and soon he becomes convinced the wolf could not have killed the victim. There is a murderer in the area killing because he is bored, the title’s king without diversion.

   The Captain probes into the mind of the killer becoming more unhinged himself until when a child his killed and he tracks down and kills the real murderer (Pierre Repp) he tells no one, and takes a garotte from the killers clothing.

   Now the Captain struggles with the overwhelming need to kill, leading to a powerful confrontation with Clara.

   The film is much simplified from the novel by Jean Giono (Horseman on the Roof, Blue Boy), and that works to its advantage, fitting the unadorned look of the film. Though it is filmed in brilliant color, this is one of the starkest films you will ever see. Scenes of the Captain’s figure in black uniform and cloak against the white dead snow are powerful, and the opening as he rides toward the village through a white snow fog sets the tone for the film, mysterious and unsettling.

   Girard makes a powerful protagonist, believably earnest and naive at the beginning and out of his depth, and by turns becoming darker, more obsessed, and bordering on madness. That he is young and handsome makes his descent into madness all the more shocking. Colette Renard’s Clara is attractive, mature, assured, a woman most men would easily desire, and Charles Vanel, an old pro, is sly and even a bit suspicious as the procurer. Leterrier shows a sure hand as a director of rare ability.

   As in the work of Woolrich, the atmosphere is rich with doom and the forbidding ever-present presence of fate. This is a grim film, though it has moments of comedy. The Captain’s figure in the beginning is almost comically incompetent using the authority suddenly thrust on him.

   Strangely for a film that is clearly out of the Noir school, this film is brightly lit and there are no stark shadows. It is often claustrophobic as life in a village in winter must have been in that era, but rather than light and shadow the film seems in soft focus, only the Captain’s sharp black uniform bringing focus to many scenes. Of particular note is the scene where he tracks the killer and child through the snow. I honestly have never seen anything like it in a film.

   It may be a bit arty for some, and it is not a particularly pleasant film. It eschews any melodrama for a kind of matter of fact horror that is all the more disturbing. How this beautiful and disturbing gem of psychological horror and suspense has eluded critics and historians of the genre and of film I can’t imagine, but maybe now a few will at least see it.

   I’m happy to have seen it again, even if it took me forty-one years to do so.

FOOTNOTE.   Since I do not believe the book has been translated into English, the book is not in Hubin, including the most recent update. The film is available on DVD but only in French and as a region 2 release. See for example:    [Steve]

Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:         

IT ALWAYS RAINS ON SUNDAY. Ealing, UK, 1947. Googie Withers, Edward Chapman, John Slater, John McCallum, Jimmy Hanley, John Carol, Alfie Bass, Jack Warner. Written by Angus MacPhail, from the novel by Arthur La Bern. Directed by Robert Hamer.

   I hate to keep doing this, but here’s another movie few if any of you ever heard of that you must go out and watch immediately, if not sooner. Dealing with twenty-four hours, dawn to dawn, in an east-end London neighborhood, it’s crammed with sub-plots more criminous than you might think: an escaped convict (John McCallum) hiding out with an old girlfriend (Googie Withers), a few crooks who have pilfered a warehouse trying to dispose of the loot, and a wonderfully patient and droll British cop (Jack Warner) tracking things down, all this set against a detailed background peopled with characters who seem wonderfully well-realized.

   No one is unusually good or bright or heroic, nor compellingly nasty; just ordinary folks making mistakes (the stolen loot turns out to be crates of roller skates) and muddling through.

   With all the characters and their interrelations, this could have easily have gotten very confusing, particularly since everyone speaks in an East End argot hard for a stranger to decipher, but director Hamer (remembered for Kind Hearts and Coronets and part of Dead of Night) sets it all pretty straight, mainly by differentiating the cast so clearly. John Slater is particularly effective as a predatory bookie given to fits of charity (but not too many) and Hanley, Carol and Bass make a memorably inept trio of bungling burglars.

   Then too, there’s a beautifully understated scene where Withers is trying to provide for her fugitive boyfriend: she digs deep in a drawer, comes up with a carefully wrapped ring she’s been keeping ever since he gave it to her years ago, so he can pawn it. And what happens next is too good for me to spoil for you. Suffice it to say that everyone involved manages to reveal character and get the point across with a muted pathos I found quite moving.

   And then there’s the ending, a sardonic arrest in a pub (“Have one for the road boys.” “We aren’t leaving.” “Oh yes you are.”) followed by a riveting chase that just about defines film noir: all rain-swept streets, dark alleys, and a tense finale in a train yard.

   This is filmmaking at its absolute best, and one you should not miss.

Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:         

BIG DEAL ON MADONNA STREET Cinecittà / Lux Film Italian, 1958. Original title: I soliti ignoti. Vittorio Gassman, Renato Salvatore, Memmo Carotenuto, Claudia Cardinale, Tiberio Murgia, Marcello Mastroianni and Toto. Written by Agenore Incrocci and Furio Scarpelli. Directed by Mario Monicelli.

   Drop what you’re doing and find a video of this. It’s funny, suspenseful, fluid, funny, and above all — Human.

   Now what else can I say about it? Every plot summary from every reviewer says BDOMS is about a motley crew of small-time thieves trying to pull off The Big Caper, and I can only add that they don’t come any motlier than this: an old rogue, a no-talent prize-fighter, a dumb kid, a preening Sicilian and others less easy to define, all interacting as real people do while they stumble toward their predestined pie-in-the face.

   The Caper in question is no bank vault or art treasure, merely the safe in the back room of a pawn shop, with an unexpected means of access, and the antics involved are all the more frantic because the stakes are so small. This film positively dances with the characters, as they plot, prepare, quarrel, fall in love, grow disenchanted, babysit, steal and just generally live lives of noisy desperation.

   Along the way there are some funny pratfalls, well-timed comic bits and a hilarious car chase with amusement-park bumper cars, but there are also moments of real tenderness and surprising tragedy, as if some Real People found their way into a Caper Film and had to make the best of it. And when we finally get to the Caper itself, it comes off with all the tension of Topkapi or The Asphalt Jungle — and damn funny, too.

FALLGUY. Fairway International Pictures, 1962. Ed Dugan, George Andre, Louis Gartner, Don Alderette, Madeline Frances. Director: Donn Harling.

   Of the five names I’ve listed in the credits above, only one has more than one other credit to his or her name on IMDb, and that’s George Andre (aka George Mitchell), and I’ll bet you haven’t heard of him, either. Louis Gartner was in one other movie; for each of the others, it was one and done.

   Ed Dugan plays Sonny Martin, a young hotrodder who witnesses the driver of one car ahead of him on the road being shot by someone in another car. The first car goes over an embankment, Sonny goes down to help, but the wounded man pulls a gun on him and orders him to drive to a doctor’s house.

   But it turns out that the doctor is in with the gang that tried to rub out the wounded man, who ends up dead after a struggle with the doctor. The doctor and the rest of the gang try to frame the kid, and the frame might even have worked, since the chief of police is also one of the gang.

   The kid escapes — lots of good action scenes in this movie — and makes his way back to the doctor’s house, where he meets the doctor’s daughter (Madeline Frances) who doesn’t know her father is hooked up with the gang. Both the police and the gang are hot on Sonny’s trail. Does he have any way out?

   As I said the action scenes are good, the music is jazzy (but way too loud), the camera work better than average, but the dialogue is bad and the acting on the part of most of the participants is worse.

   What’s funny, though, is that the whole is far better than the sum of its parts. I can’t figure out why I kept watching, but I did, and I do have many other movies I could have been watching instead.

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