Crime Films


REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


HARRY IN YOUR POCKET. United Artists, 1973. James Coburn, Michael Sarrazin, Trish Van Devere, Walter Pidgeon. Music by Lalo Schifrin. Producer-Director: Bruce Geller.

   Bruce Geller is best known for his work on the television series Mannix and Mission: Impossible. He also directed one feature film: Harry in Your Pocket, an offbeat study of the lives and times of a coterie of high-end pickpockets as they make their way from Seattle to Victoria, British Columbia, and eventually to Salt Lake City. Filmed on location, the movie defies easy categorization.

   With a prominent score by Lalo Shifrin, one that occasionally overwhelms what’s happening on screen, the film at times seems to be as much a musical as a crime drama. At the end of the day, the movie is best understood as a drama, even a tragedy. It’s a study of human frailty and character flaws, wrapped up in a package with the words “quirky crime film” written in black marker.

   The plot. Harry (James Coburn) is a pickpocket, living a luxuriously itinerant life on other people’s money and credit cards. Joining him for the proverbial ride is Casey (Walter Pidgeon), an aging pickpocket with a cocaine habit.

   They eventually join forces with Ray (Michael Sarrazin), an ambitious young pickpocket, and his girlfriend Sandy (Trish Van Devere). Soon, however, each of the gang’s personal flaws begins to take a toll on the group’s cohesion. Harry’s too rigid and is a womanizer. Casey has a drug habit and is ashamed that he is no longer as steady on his feet as he used to be. Ray is too ambitious for his own good and becomes increasingly jealous of Harry’s infatuation with Sandy. And Sandy. She’s the linchpin in all this. Even Harry says that he thinks she’s going to be trouble.

   While it’s not what I would call an excellent film, Harry in Your Pocket is a quite captivating work. It’s subtle and Coburn puts in a solid performance. It’s Pidgeon, however, in one of his last leading roles, that made the most memorable impression on me. Look for the scene in which he is instructing Ray on the “art” of being a pickpocket. He reminisces about the good old days before mugging, when pickpockets took their craft seriously and there was a code and honor in the “profession.”

   It’s that sense of melancholy and nostalgia that stayed with me. A product of the 1970s, Harry in Your Pocket could be easily interpreted as an extended cinematic metaphor for the generational divide in early 1970s American society.

KISS ME A KILLER. Concorde-New Horizons, 1991. Julie Carmen, Robert Beltran, Ramon Franco, Charles Boswell, Sam Vlahos. Director: Marcus DeLeon.

   This late night attraction on one of the pay channels we’ve just signed up for is the first I’ve taped that turned out to be more than I was hoping for. You may or may not believe me, but what this is is an authentic, down-to-earth throwback to the noir movies of of the 1940s, done semi-salsa style.

   It takes place in L.A., where the middle-aged (and white) owner of a bar has a good-looking but bored younger wife, and when he hires a new Latino singer for the house band, fireworks begin to happen.

   In spite of a list of actors who’ve been around but who are still pretty much unknown (at least to me), the acting is top-drawer, if not quite top notch, the music is fine, the pace is fast, and the story makes sense. Julie Carmen, a sultry brunette with a voice so husky it could pull an Alaskan dog sled, as the saying goes, I would not mind seeing again either. This one’s a keeper, that’s for sure.


— Reprinted from Nothing Accompliced #4, November 1993 (slightly revised).

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


DANCE HALL RACKET. Screen Classics Inc., 1953. Timothy Farrell, Lenny Bruce, Bernie Jones, Honey Bruce and Killer Joe Piro. Written by Lenny Bruce. Produced by George Weiss. Directed by Phil Tucker.

   There’s something sort of fitting about Lenny Bruce dong a tame 1950s skin-flick, but the good news here is that this film is too seldom shown to damage his reputation — which, come to think of it, he did pretty well all by himself. The other good news is that aside from Bruce, Dance Hall Racket is not a waste of anyone’s talent; the talents here assembled are perfectly suited to this sub-nudie effort, and navigate the seedy screen like they were born for it.

   We get Timothy Farrell as Umberto Scali, running a dime-a-dance joint as a front for various & sundry illegalities, such as murder, diamond smuggling and maybe a touch of prostitution; Lenny Bruce and Killer Joe Piro as flunky-hoods; Honey Bruce as a dancer who changes her clothes a lot, and Bernie Jones (formerly of Spike Jones’ ensemble) as a dumb Swede who stops the action every so often to tell excruciatingly bad jokes.

   Dance Hall Racket exists primarily as an excuse to show attractive young ladies in stages of undress, highlighted at various intervals by an actual glimpse of a bare breast (GOSH!) but there’s a sort of tawdry plot here: something about Timothy Farrell buying hot ice and planning to abduct a recently-released con and find out where he stashed the loot.

   We also get an undercover cop worming his way into Farrell’s scene and a neophyte taxi-dancer resisting temptation, but Dance Hall Racket is too disjointed to weave any of these threads together; like I say, it’s an excuse to look at nekkid wimmin, and a pretty feeble one at that, shot on shoe-box sets by a cameraman who looks like he was thinking of something else at the time.

   Getting back to the talented people who made this film, well, Lenny Bruce is legendary, and his wife Honey was played by Valerie Perrine (who got an Oscar nomination) in the biopic Lenny, but the others are almost as fascinating: Producer George Weiss started out with Test Tube Babies in 1948, went on to Glen or Glenda? (1953) and continued on into the 90s making films he should be ashamed of.

   Right after Dance Hall Racket director Phil Tucker tried going “legit” with Robot Monster, a legendary mess in fake 3-D, but was soon back to doing things like Strips Around the World and Bagdad After Midnite. He continued working sporadically in the movies as late as the 1980s.

   My favorite though is Timothy Farrell, here the gang boss, but in real life an L.A. County Sherriff’s bailiff (he appeared as himself the next year in A Star Is Born) who acted in nudie movies and religious shorts on the side. He eventually made County Marshall (despite having one of his films seized in a police raid) but was fired for using his deputies as political activists in 1975, indicating a personality much more interesting than this bizarre little film.

DEAD PIGEON ON BEETHOVEN STREET. Episode 25, Season 1, of Tatort, Germany, 07 January 1973. Original title: Tote Taube in der Beethovenstraße. Glenn Corbett, Christa Lang, Sieghardt Rupp, Anton Diffring, Stephanie Audran, Eric P. Caspar. Screenwriter-director: Sam Fuller. Novelization: Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street, by Samuel Fuller (Pyramid V3736, paperback original, 1974).

   This is the story of a private eye named Sandy (Glenn Corbett) who comes to Germany on an extremely important case. He’s been hired an United States senator with presidential aspirations to obtain a negative that in the wrong hands could prove to be extremely embarrassing. His partner, who arrived before him, is dead. His objective: find the killer, infiltrate the gang of blackmailers, and save the senator’s hide.

   The killer, as it turns out, is a fellow named Charlie Umlaut. Sandy’s gateway to the gang is a girl named Christa (Christa Lang) who is also the girl in the compromising photograph. She also knows who the leader of the gang is (Anton Diffring), and to gain her confidence, Sandy poses as a rival in the blackmail business. But can Christa herself be trusted, even when propinquity (between herself and Sandy) takes the way of nature and least resistance?

   This was filmed at a low point in Director Sam Fuller’s career. The story had nothing (or very little) to do with the rest of the German series it was filmed as part of. But Fuller had name value, and he was given a a free hand, more or less — given budgetary considerations. The movie (which is what I will call it) is filmed in beautiful colors and fanciful camera angles, and in those two regards, I should consider it a huge success.

   But the story, at least in the longer, restored director’s cut (in the DVD recently released and remastered through the UCLA Archives) becomes repetitious and boring, and the acting is stiff and the dialogue on occasion seemingly ad-libbed. Christa Lang’s awkward body motions, speech patterns and facial expressions can easily become annoying, if you allow them. (She was married to Fuller at the time and until his death.)

   Some reviewers have really disliked this movie. Others call it a work of genius, calling it an inspired collision with (and combination of) Noir and the New Wave. I don’t know as I’d go that far, but Fuller usually knew what he was doing, and while I also don’t know if he did here, maybe he really did. Either that or the movie is a complete failure, and once that is admitted, then perhaps that’s what it was how it was intended, as a complete spoof of the crime genre.

   And maybe this review makes sense too, and maybe it doesn’t.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


WICKED WOMAN. United Artists, 1953. Beverly Michaels, Richard Egan, Percy Helton, Evelyn Scott, Robert Osterloh, Frank Ferguson. Written by Clarence Greene and Russell Rouse. Produced by Clarence Greene. Directed by Russsell Rouse, who later married Beverly Michaels, making this a tight-knit ensemble indeed.

   I’m getting to the point where my memory is not to be trusted. Lately as I drive in to work, I can’t recall if I remembered to feed the cat, and it’s even later in the day when I realize I don’t have one. But such are the vagaries of the human mind that when I saw this at CINEVENT I remembered Andrew Sarris making a passing positive reference to it in an article from 1974.

   It’s well worth the mention, a film that floats at the edge of James M. Cain territory like a threatening cloud. Beverly Michaels blows into town on a greyhound, and from the moment she lights a cigarette and asks where to find a cheap room, we can see this dame is trouble and headed for more.

   In short order Bev gets a job as a waitress in a neighborhood bar owned by Evelyn Scott (who is a bit of a lush) run by her hunky husband Richard Egan. She also takes advantage of a mousy – no make that ratty —neighbor across the hall at the boarding house, played to perfection by Percy Helton. It’s obvious from the first that he has a letch for Beverly, and equally obvious that she has only contempt for the little wheezy-voiced fat man, but we shall see…..

   It’s surprising how natural the acting is here. Ms. Michaels seems the perfect tramp, Egan the brainless jock, and Scott the bitch who’s getting in the way as Egan and Michaels start a torrid affair and dream of getting away somewhere — Mexico maybe — if only they could sell the bar without Scott objecting…..

   Using passion instead of brains, Egan and Michaels hatch a plan for her to impersonate the wife and sign the necessary papers, then skip town with the dough. But it seems neither of them knew the paperwork takes a week or ten days to process, resulting in an enjoyably suspenseful stretch with the lovers trying to conceal the deception, even when the new buyer wanders in to look things over.

   And there’s an even nastier wrinkle when the ratty little neighbor tumbles to the scheme and blackmails Michaels for sexual favors — believe, me, there’s nothing as scary or sinister as pipsqueak Percy popping out in the passageway with a cheery “I’ve been waiting for you!”

   From this point on, the plot could have gone any number of places, but it went where I wasn’t expecting it to go. And maybe you won’t expect it either. Suffice it to say, this is tough, cynical and as downbeat as any noir buff could wish for.

   And incidentally, the title song for this enchanting film is sung (belted out, rather) by none other than Herb Jeffries, the Bronze Buckaroo himself!

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


THE ANATOMIST. Made for British TV: A Towers of London Production, 06 February 1956. Televised as part of the series ITV Play of the Week. US release, 1961.Alastair Sim, George Cole, Adrienne Corri, Jill Bennett and Michael Ripper. Written by James Bridie (play) and Harry Alan Towers. Directed by Dennis Vance.

   Perhaps the oddest film ever made about the Burke and Hare thing. Which is not to say it’s any good; this is, in fact, a rather dullish film about body-snatching, murder, riots and young love — but there’s no denying it’s a strange one.

   We open in a stylish drawing room where medical student George Cole (Alastair Sims’ perennial side-kick) is explaining to fiancée Jill Bennett why he has to stay in Edinburgh and study under the great Dr. Knox, instead of setting up practice and marrying her. In due course Dr Knox himself appears, played by Mr Sim himself (surprise!) and a lively discussion ensues about the merits of medicine and marriage.

   It’s refreshingly outré to see the redoubtable Alastair Sim turn his comic gifts to serious, borderline-sinister effect, but the novelty wears off as the characters keep talking… and talking… and talking… and…

   You get the point? The writers and director keep everyone wandering around one crummy set throwing dialogue at each other for about 15 or 20 minutes that seem much longer. Finally though, we get out of the drawing room and into a sleazy pub, where Burke and Hare (Hare is played by Michael Ripper, who would soon become a regular in Hammer films) start cozening a lady of easy virtue and ill repute (Adrienne Corri) plying her with strong drink and sweet words. And more words… and more words… and more….

   Suffice it to say that by the time they got her out of there, I was ready for any sort of action, though I would have preferred that mayhem be committed on the makers of this thing.

   And so it goes. Cole recognizes Ms. Corri’s corpse in Sim’s lecture hall and they discuss the matter till it’s talked to death. The scene shifts (restlessly) back to Bennett’s drawing room where someone tells us about Burke’s trial and the ensuing riots, just in time for the remainder of the cast to debate the proprieties of the situation. And then…

   Well, dull as it is, I’m not going to give away the ending of this thing except to say it was a merciful release and even a bit of a surprise, not that I cared much by that point. The Anatomist takes an unusual view of the whole body-snatching business (though to be strictly accurate, neither Burke nor Hare ever snatched any bodies) and it’s always a pleasure to see Alastair Sim strut his stuff.

   But I would have preferred less strutting and more movement.

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


THE ARNELO AFFAIR. MGM, 1947. John Hodiak, George Murphy, Frances Gifford, Dean Stockwell, Eve Arden, Warner Anderson. Screenwriter/director: Arch Oboler.

   Perhaps you’ve never had occasion to watch The Arnelo Affair. Consider yourself one of the lucky ones. For despite the potentially interesting premise – a suburban Chicago housewife named Anne Parkson (Frances Gifford) gets caught up in a romantic entanglement with a sleazy nightclub owner named Tony Arnelo (Hodiak) – this movie is far more of a tedious soap opera than it is a crime film.

   Let me be perfectly honest. The melodramatic acting, the incessant and overwrought soundtrack, and the truly dismal dialogue made this one a tough one for me to get through.

   Directed by Arch Oboler, who was known primarily for his work in radio, The Arnelo Affair is a flat, lifeless composition that offers little in the way of distinguished direction or photography.

   That’s not to say that Oboler didn’t have talent on hand. John Hodiak was a terrific actor, and he did his best with what he had to work with, but it wasn’t nearly enough to make his performance as the eponymous Tony Arnelo anything particularly memorable.

   The one small bright spot in this rather tepid affair is the presence of Warner Anderson as a police detective tasked with solving the murder of an actress. His trail leads him directing to both Arnelo and to Anne and her boring-as-dirt lawyer husband (George Murphy). Convincing in this role, Anderson gives a little bit of gritty reality and gravitas to the soap opera proceedings.

THE INTERNECINE PROJECT. Allied Artists, 1974. James Coburn, Lee Grant, Harry Andrews, Ian Hendry, Michael Jayston , Christiane Krüger, Keenan Wynn. Screenplay by Barry Levinson & Jonathan Lynn, based on the novel Internecine by Mort W. Elkind. Director: Ken Hughes.

   The dictionary definition of the word “internecine” is “mutually destructive,” and as a description of what this movie is all about, it’s as an appropriate a word as I can think of. Based on the short amount of time I spent watching an interview with screenwriter Jonathan Lynn provided on the DVD of the film, the word is pronounced something like “in TERN neh seen,” and if you let it, it’s a word that will get stuck in your head all day long without being able to find a way to get out.

   Also, before going any further, I’d like to mention that the novel the movie is supposedly based on, the one by Mort Elkind that’s stated in the credits, it doesn’t seem to exist. One of those anomalies of the film-making world that pops up every now and again, I imagine, and I no longer worry about such things.

   So, where does the “mutual destruction” come in? It seems that what James Coburn, a high profile (and highly photogenic) professor of economics, wants more than anything else, is an appointment to a high government position. Rather than go through an embarrassing set of revelations in any confirmation hearings, he decides to clean up his past. That is to say, four most inconvenient former associates, unknown to each other, in some previous undesirable activities.

   How? By setting each one a final task, that of killing off another one of the four. By an overdose of insulin, by death in a shower (someone must have seen Psycho), by a high tech electronic frequency transmitter, and last but not least, a stout clunk on the head, simple but always effective.

   The timing of these four simultaneous assassinations is crucial, and so the movie plays out like a well-planned “heist” film, one in which if one step goes awry, the whole affair may fall apart quickly and immediately.

   Twists and turns are expected, therefore, but alas, even though James Coburn’s character spends a lot of time pacing as he waits for the phone to ring at appropriate intervals from each of the participants he has sent into motion, there is only one twist that really counts, and you’ll have to wait to the ending for that.

   The photography is very well done, and Lee Grant, who plays a journalist as well as a former romantic interest, is as beautiful as ever. Every once in a while there also seems to be a point at which she is important to the plot, but sadly enough, that point never quite comes. According to what I read on IMDb, a number of people have liked this film, but if you were to ask me, I’d have to tell you I found it a misfire, more often than not.

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


THE ZODIAC KILLER. 1971. Hal Reed, Bob Jones, Ray Lynch, Tom Pittman, Mary Darrington, Frank Sanabek, Ed Quigley, Doodles Weaver (as Doddles Weaver). Director: Tom Hanson.

   This one’s an exercise in pure exploitation. Released in 1971 at the height of the hysteria surrounding the series of unsolved murders in northern California, the eponymous The Zodiac Killer is a low budget attempt to capitalize on the public’s well-founded fears that a brutal murderer might be lurking in their midst. Poorly edited and with acting that ranges from borderline adequate to the downright campy, The Zodiac Killer is not what anyone would call a good film.

   But it is a cultural artifact, to be sure. There’s something very gonzo about late 1960s and 1970s independent filmmaking, a gung ho spirit that sadly is lacking in filmmaking today.

   The tone of the film ranges from sleazy to brutal to hysterically funny, and it takes forever to figure out what the filmmakers actually intended their final product to be. Unless, that is, what they intended is what you see on the screen: a real mishmash that somehow tells a story about who they imagined the Zodiac killer might be.

   And that persona comes in the form of a mailman by the name of Jerry (Hal Reed). Jerry’s not a particularly happy person. His father lives in an insane asylum, and he gets yelled at by old ladies on his mail route – well, one old lady in particular. His only friend seems to be a pathetic, violently erratic truck driver. Somehow – and we never really learn how and why – he snaps and becomes a devotee of a religious cult and then begins his killing spree.

   There are some truly brutal murder scenes in this one, but also some scenes that are so over the top that they’re downright comical. Almost slapstick. A truly bizarre little movie that doesn’t say too much about anything but, if it ends up being screened as a midnight movie, has the potential to be a lost cult classic.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


BIG HOUSE, U.S.A. Bel-Air/United Artists, 1955. Ralph Meeker, Broderick Crawford, Lon Chaney Jr, William Talman, Felicia Farr, Reed Hadley and Charles Bronson. Written by John C. Higgins. Directed by Howard W. Koch.

   Despite the title, this isn’t really a prison movie. It’s a film that could have been agreeably subversive, in the manner of Kiss Me Deadly, but instead it settles for being merely unpleasant.

   Ralph Meeker stars as Jerry Barker, who seems at first to be just a guy out for a walk in the woods who stops to help a lost child. But this is Ralph at his nastiest, in a role that makes his Mike Hammer look like Saint Francis by comparison.

   Things get disagreeable pretty quickly, and what seemed at first to be an act of kindness turns into extortion. Ralph almost comes out of those woods with $200,000 and a guilty secret. I won’t go into details, but it was all pretty grim, even for a seasoned old movie-watcher like me.

   I said Ralph “almost” comes out of the woods with the money. Turns out he hid most of it back in the timber (at Royal Gorge National Park, where most of this was filmed) and when he’s picked up he only has a few thousand on him — enough to get nailed for extortion and draw a one-to-five-year sentence; with good behavior he can expect to get out in a few months and go back to claim his loot.

   But things take an interesting turn when Ralph gets thrown in a cell full of cult-movie bad guys: Broderick Crawford, William Talman, Lon Chaney and Charles Bronson. And there’s another fun twist when Ralph’s cell-mates plan to bust out and take him with them… to lead them to his loot.

   Like I say, this could have been enjoyably loathsome — like The Lineup or The Killers (the 1964 remake) with a writer and director attuned to its noir potential. But the folks in charge here decided to go for a Dragnet-style approach; Reed Hadley comes on as an FBI agent, complete with voice-over narration, and everything gets filmed at arm’s-length, in a near-documentary style, but without the sense of gritty realism.

   Even the most harrowing moments — and there are quite a few here — are shot with a detachment that seems almost uncaring. And when everyone gets their comeuppance, we get no sense of things coming together or falling apart. All we get is the sad conviction that with this story hook and those actors, this could have been a lot better.

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