Crime Films

DIAL RED O. Allied Artists, 1955. Bill Elliott, Helene Stanley, Keith Larsen, Paul Picerni, Jack Kruschen, Elaine Riley. Written and directed by Daniel B. Ullman.

   Getting too old for the B-westerns he’d been making, and with B-westerns on their way out anyway, “Wild” Bill Elliott ended his movie-making career with five low budget police dramas from Allied Artists. This is the first of the five, all of them recently released in a box set from Warner Archives.

   Strangely enough, Elliott never appeared once on television, so when the five crime films didn’t pan out, he seems to have disappeared quietly into retirement. I’ve had the five movies on a want list for quite a while, but while Dial Red O is perfectly acceptable for what it is, I was also disappointed. Except for possibly some of the lighting effects and a jazzy score by Shorty Rogers and his group, there are no noir aspects to the film at all.

   Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But Dial Red O could easily almost have been an extended version of Dragnet on TV, without the monotone deliveries and the distinctive “Dum – – – de – DUM – DUM.

   Not that Elliott doesn’t speak in terse, clipped tones himself. In this film he’s a Hollywood police lieutenant named Andy Flynn, and the fugitive he’s after is an escapee from an army psychiatric hospital whose wife had just divorced him.

   The wife, played by Helene Stanley, has been playing around. After she’s killed by her married lover, the fugitive Flynn os looking for is the obvious suspect.

   From here on, or even before, there are no frills, only straight-forward police work. Nothing less, but nothing more, either.


JOHNNY GUNMAN. Will Kohler Productions, 1957. Martin E. Brooks, Ann Donaldson, Johnny Seven, Woodrow Parfrey, and Carrie Radisson. Written & directed by Art Ford.

   Well… it’s different.

   An independent effort from 1957, Johnny Gunman unfolds a tale of gang war over a single night, and with that premise and the title I was expecting some action. Maybe a lot of action. But this is quite literally all talk.

   The story? Johnny G, aspiring Gang Boss (Martin E. Brooks) meets failed writer (Ann Donaldson) and they kill time till his confrontation with a rival aspiring gang boss.

   When I say they kill time, I mean they talk it to death. All allocution. Nothing but natter in the absence of action. Conversation commences and gab goes on, declamation and discourse dominate the drama, challenged by chatter, overcome by oration. It got to the point where I was staring in disbelief at a film that made Andy Warhol’s Empire look like Kill Bill.

   If I were guessing, I’d say this was written with an eye toward Playhouse 90 or some such, influenced by Gore Vidal’s Billy the Kid, with the intention of injecting Significance into a genre piece. Somehow it ended up as the B&W equivalent of Creation of the Humanoids: an arty, low-budget sub-basement film, probably destined for the bottom of a triple-bill or maybe as filler in a burlesque show.

   That’s a pity, because there are glimmers of talent here. The acting is generally good, if a bit intense, the camera work threadbare but inventive, and the script…..

   Well, there are moments where all that talk is almost believable. Unfortunately those moments are buried in an avalanche of other moments where I just wished they’d shut up and shoot somebody.

   Maybe words are like any other commodity: when there aren’t many, they seem very special, but when they glut the market, they lose their value. Whatever the case, Johnny Gunman strives to sound important, but finally achieves only self-importance. And that ain’t even close.


THE CROOKED WAY. United Artists, 1949. John Payne John Payne, Sonny Tufts, Ellen Drew, Rhys Williams, Percy Helton, John Doucette, Don Haggerty. Director: Robert Florey.

   Although in many ways a highly impressive film noir, The Crooked Way doesn’t have much in the way of depth. The story is a familiar one to those steeped in the works of writers such as Cornell Woolrich and David Goodis. World War II has ended. A man (John Payne) wakes up in a U.S. Army hospital in San Francisco with a metal fragment in his skull and no memory of his past life. He thinks he’s named Eddie Rice and from Los Angeles.

   It therefore makes sense that he’d go to the City of Angels to piece together who he is so he can begin living again. When he gets to LA, though, he soon learns that his real last name isn’t Rice. It’s Riccardi. Eddie Riccardi. And he led a life of crime and was mixed up with some seriously bad dudes.

   He also had – or has – a wife named Nina Martin (Ellen Drew), who is now working with his former associate, the nasty and brutish Vince Alexander (Sonny Tufts). Much of the running time is spent on the cat-and-mouse games played by the LAPD and Vince with Eddie (Payne) caught in the middle. And just when things don’t seem as if they could get any worse for him, he finds himself framed for the murder of a LAPD officer.

   All standard material in the world of late 1940s crime cinema, topped off with a significant amount of time devoted to the then nascent science of forensics. Payne does more than an admirable job in portraying the film’s doomed protagonist, although he isn’t quite able to capture his character’s inner life. How tormented is Eddie Rice/Riccardi after all he’s been through? To be honest, we don’t really know. Had the producers wanted more of the lead character’s trauma explored, someone like Robert Ryan would have been a more suitable actor for the part.

   What The Crooked Way may lack in depth, however, it more than makes up for in flair and style. The movie was lovingly photographed by cinematographer John Alton, who lent his signature touch to numerous films noir in the 1940s and 1950s. From the lighting to the prototypical noirish mood settings, the movie is steeped in the dark and shadowy world of film noir.

   I know that sometimes there is a debate about whether a movie can rightly be considered a film noir. Trust me, this one with the neon lights, the nightclubs, the rainy LA street, the shootout in a warehouse, the unique camera angles, is about as visually noir as you can get. Recommended.


THE MAN WHO DIED TWICE. Republic Pictures, 1958. Rod Cameron, Vera Ralston, Mike Mazurki, Gerald Milton, Richard Karlan. Writer: Richard C. Sarafian. Director: Joseph Kane.

   Albeit brief in running time, The Man Who Died Twice is a surprisingly stylish film noir from Joseph Kane, a director better known for his work with Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. With a taut screenplay from Richard C. Sarafian, there’s more than a hint of sleaze in this crime thriller. Let’s see. There’s the lead character who may or may not be a Kansas City cop, a nosy old woman who gets more than she bargains for when she snoops on a couple of hitmen, a heroin addict who double crosses her dealer, and a nightclub singer who pretends not to see the obvious sin all around her. All good stuff if you’re into that sort of thing.

   Rod Cameron portrays Bill Brennon, the Kansas City cop who shows up in town after he learns that his good for nothing brother T.J. died in an automobile accident. He soon finds out that T.J., a nightclub owner, was mixed up in a heroin smuggling operation and that he got into some disputes with his business associates.

   Further complicating matters is Lynn Brennon, his brother’s widow. She professes to know nothing about what her deceased husband was mixed up in. But Bill feels protective toward her. In fact, he may even be falling in love with her. All of this is quite displeasing to Rak (Mike Mazurki), one of bartenders at the nightclub, who obviously is also holding a candle toward Lynn.

   There’s not really one second wasted in this Republic Pictures release. It moves at breakneck speed and has some exceptionally well-crafted moments, especially those involving the two hitmen sent from Chicago to recover a payload of heroin from the dead brother’s apartment. In this way and others, this movie reminded me quite a bit of The Lineup (which I reviewed here), also released in 1958. Although the latter film is clearly superior, the two put together would make for a great double feature.


THE PRETENDER. Republic, 1947. Albert Dekker, Catherine Craig, Charles Drake, Alan Carney, Linda Stirling and Tom Kennedy. Written by Don Martin and Doris Miller. Photography by John Alton. Produced & directed by W. Lee Wilder.

   I read someplace that film noir was a genre in which even lesser talents could shine, a premise borne out convincingly by this film, because if ever there were a definitive Lesser Talent, it was surely Billy Wilder’s brother: William “W. Lee” Wilder.

   In fact, The Pretender isn’t bad at all, and in places it’s surprisingly good, coming from the auteur of Killers from Space and The Man Without a Body.

   Albert Dekker’s usual noir persona was as the Criminal Boss a little too intelligent for his own good, to be brought down by his less-mentally-encumbered underlings in films like Suspense, The Killers, and Kiss Me Deadly. Here he’s an investment broker who’s been pilfering from a client (Catherine Craig) and plots to cover the theft by marrying her.

   But it seems Ms Craig has marital plans of her own, and is about to be engaged to Charles Drake. Dekker doesn’t know the identity of her prospective fiancé, but figures if he can put whoever it is out of action, he can catch Craig on the rebound. And he knows a guy (Alan Carney, just split from his godawful comedy-team-up with Wally Brown at RKO) who knows a guy who can eliminate the inconvenient beau—if Dekker can tell him who it is.

   Here’s where Don Martin’s script gets tricky. Dekker arranges for Carney’s hit man to rub out the rival when his name and picture show up in the Society Column. Whereupon fickle Ms Craig has a change of heart and elopes with Dekker—who finds his name and picture in the papers!

   I’ve mentioned Screenwriter Don Martin before, in connection with the movie Arrow in the Dust (which, come to think of it, also deals with mistaken identity) and he does a fine job here of fleshing out the characters, laying the groundwork for plot twists, and papering over the implausibilities.

   When it comes to establishing mood, though, I must tip the hat to cinematographer John Alton, whose work includes The Big Combo, Reign of Terror, He Walked by Night, and big-budget things like Elmer Gantry and The Brothers Karamozov. Alton fills the screen with striking compositions, looming shadows and those just-slightly-strange lighting effects that can cast an eerie atmosphere over an otherwise mundane moment.

   This off-beat approach extends to the casting, with Dekker going from stodgy to desperate quite convincingly. Charles Drake projects his usual bluff nothingness, and he does it well, Christine Craig is really quite good as the middle-aged socialite bent on marriage, but the big surprise is Alan Carney, as the sleazy middle-man for murder. There’s just something about his performance here that makes you wonder how a fat man like him crawled out from under a rock. Add Serial Queen Linda Stirling in a showy part as a vengeful moll, and you have a colorful ensemble indeed.

   It’s a combination even a flat-footed director like Wilder can’t mess up, and The Pretender comes off as an enjoyable and even memorable noir worthy of your attention.

ED McBAIN – Cop Hater. 87th Precinct #1. Permabook M-4268, paperback original, 1956. Reprint editions include: Signet, paperback, 1973. Pocket, paperback, 1999.

COP HATER. United Artists, 1958. Robert Loggia (Detective Steve Carelli), Gerald O’Loughlin, Ellen Parker, Shirley Ballard, Jerry Orbach. Screenwriter: Henry Kane, based on the novel by Ed McBain. Director: William Berke.

   In his introduction to the Pocket edition, Ed McBain (Evan Hunter) lays out his case that Cop Hater was the first ever ensemble police procedural, in which the focus is not always on the same detective from book to book, that the detectives involved would even not only come and go, but those who stayed would grow as individuals as time went on.

   I have no reason to disagree. There were police procedurals of course before he came along, but none that I know of that follow the pattern he established with the 87th Precinct books. (You can read more about the history of this particular subgenre of crime fiction here.) Nor can you argue against the success of the series. There were 55 in all, the final one being Fiddlers, which came out in 2005, the year Evan Hunter died.

   Cop Hater, as well as all of the other books in the series, takes place in the fictional city of Isola, which for all intents and purposes may as well be New Your City. Again in his introduction McBain explains why he decided to go the Isola route: He thought he was taking up too much of time of the various detective he was in touch with trying to be sure his facts were as correct as possible.

   This, the first book, takes place in the middle of a heat wave, day after day in the 90s, with air conditioned homes and offices at a premium, including the 87th Precinct’s station house. Compounding the problems of the officers who are headquartered there is that they have a series killer on their hands, someone who hates cops and is taking out that hatred the hard way.

   The count is up to three before they get a break in the case as well as in the weather. Most of the work is done by dogged on-the-ground police work, dead ends and false leads included. A great start to an even better series overall. To my mind, anyone who’s a fan of police procedurals can really ought to own as many books in this series as they can.

   As drenched in sweat as the book is, the movie is even more so, when we can see the effects of the heat if not feel it ourselves. I think that this a movie that’s actually helped by not having a big budget to spend on expensive sets — the cheaper they are, the more authentic they seem — or even the money to spend on bigger name actors, which as it turns out, wasn’t needed anyway. All the people in this film are dead=on perfect.

   The movie follows the book almost exactly as well, except for one added scene in which Carelli (Carella in the book) and his girl friend Teddy (who is deaf) go out on a double date with his partner Maguire (Bush in the book) and his wife. I’m not sure why this was included. I may have misinterpreted the scriptwriter’s intention, but to me it made the ending feel tacked on, rather than coming as a logical conclusion, as it does in the book.

   Don’t put a lot of meaning to this. If you enjoy the 87th Precinct books, all I can say is don’t miss this filmed version of the very first one.


CODE TWO. MGM, 1953. Ralph Meeker, Robert Horton. Sally Forrest, Jeff Richards. Elaine Stewart, Keenan Wynn, James Craig. Director: Fred M. Wilcox

   Code Two, a movie that I was completely unfamiliar with prior to purchasing it on DVD a few days before watching it, is actually two movies in one. The first, which goes on far too long, is a completely inoffensive, if occasionally dull, semi-documentary film about three recruits at the Los Angeles Police Academy. The story follows the three men as they transition from civilians to motorcycle cops working in the Traffic Division. There’s really nothing particularly wrong with this portion of the movie. But there’s no compelling reason for it to exist, either. That is, unless you are really – and I mean really – interested in police motorcycles.

   Now on to the second movie, so to speak. This far more invigorating portion of the film is a crime drama/murder mystery in which one of the recruits, a hothead by the name of Chuck O’Flair (Ralph Meeker), must redeem himself and apprehend the cattle rustlers who killed his friend and partner, Harry Whenion (Jeff Richards). There’s some romance between O’Flair and his now deceased friend’s girlfriend, but that thankfully takes a back seat to some standard police procedural moments. There’s a motorcycle chase (of course) and there’s the “calling all cars” segment that I am sure the producers insisted be in the film.

   But what really stands out is a final action sequence in which O’Flair must wage a one-man war against a gaggle of cattle rustlers in a slaughterhouse somewhere out in the northern part of Los Angeles County. It’s a fairly violent and rather gritty ending to a film that starts off as a genial look at the day in the life of LAPD recruits.

   Meeker is well-cast and makes as much as he can of the part. Look for Robert Horton, perhaps best known for his work in the Western genre, as Meeker’s partner and for Keenan Wynn and James Craig as the police brass. One last thing. The DVD cover tells me that this movie is “the fastest drama on two wheels!” I suspect that’s a bit of hyperbole.


THIEF OF HEARTS. Paramount, 1984. Steven Bauer, Barbara Wiliams, John Getz, David Caruso, and George Wendt. Written & directed by Douglas Day Stewart.

   A lush romantic fantasy dressed up as a crime film in the bright-pastel Miami Vice mode. So well done that you don’t mistake it for an actual crime film, it’s highly enjoyable on its own terms. And while I will discuss the plot in some detail here, I have to say I’m revealing no more than the original release trailer did.

   Hunky Steven Bauer, he of the chiseled face and biceps, plays a cat burglar extraordinaire, grown rich from preying on the very wealthy. So rich that he can afford a mega-warehouse apartment in San Francisco, a boat at the marina, a fancy sports car…

   You get the idea. This character is to be taken no more seriously than Raffles, Arsene Lupin, The Lone Wolf, or any of those International Jewel thieves who were once played by real luminaries like John Barrymore, Melvyn Douglas, or William Powell.

   Getting back to Bauer, though, he starts the film with a raid on an ultra-chic condo owned by John Getz and Barbara Williams, best-selling children’s book author and trendy interior designer, respectively. Writer-Director Stewart generates a certain amount of suspense here, and then…

   And then things take a turn for the Romantic. Amid the loot from the condo is a lock box containing Williams’ private journals, wherein she keeps her innermost thoughts and fantasies—for the millennials out there, that’s what folks used to do with their private thoughts and fantasies before there was Facebook.

   Anyway, Bauer reads the journals, becomes intrigued by the inner woman and sets out to seduce the outer one – a task made easier because he knows which buttons to push, and because her husband is a self-absorbed dullard. Even his publisher (a nice character part by George Wendt) says so.

   The seduction is carried out among the luxurious trappings one associates with old Ross Hunter films (All That Heaven Allows, Back Street, etc.) and if you can enjoy the long romantic scenes, the opulent music and gratuitous nudity (I could and did) time passes pleasantly till things come to a head.

   Getz (If you remember the actor as the nice red-neck bartender in Blood Simple you won’t recognize him here.) awakens to his wife’s new obsession, senses that Bauer is a phony, and sets out to investigate. At the same time, Bauer falls deep in love with Williams but finds himself emotionally crippled because he can’t open up to her. And for her part, Williams becomes increasingly put off by this man with something to hide who has invaded her life by way of her dreams.

   By now you may get the idea that this fantasy romance touches on some very real and complex emotions. It does, and it also works in some nice plot twists, as Bauer’s partner-in-crime (a very young, lean and repellant David Caruso) sees that it’s time to move on and wants to feather their retirement with one last big job: another raid on Getz and Williams’ condo.

   Which leads to a scene that actually got me a little misty, and I won’t spoil it for you. And to a full-blooded romantic conclusion I enjoyed and didn’t buy for a minute.

   Thief of Hearts is very much stuck in the 1980s, with the pounding music, artsy editing and garish décor – what Williams does by way of “decorating” Bauer’s apartment seems like a joke in the worst possible taste — but I found it easy to get around all that and love it for the Rom-Fantasy it is.

   And you might, too.


KALEIDOSCOPE. Wincast, UK / Warners, US, 1966. h Warren Beatty, Susannah York, Clive Revill, and Eric Porter. Written by Robert Carrington and Jane-Howard (Hammerstein) Carrington. Directed by Jack Smight.

   A thing of no consequence, but a diverting time-killer, this comedy-caper film in the style of Charade and Arabesque never gets really funny and seldom exciting, but radiates enough style to carry it along.

   Warren Beatty stars as Barney Lincoln, one of those characters you only see in the movies: rich, charming, virile, straight—and single. And if you can buy that, maybe you can accept the notion that he decides to cat-burgle his way into a playing-card factory and change the printing machines to mark the cards, then proceeds to tour the gambling palaces of Europe and win fortunes without getting banned and black-listed.

   He also meets his female counterpart, gorgeous, bright and single Susannah York, whose father (Clive Revill, in a charmingly eccentric characterization) is a Scotland Yard man with a use for Beatty’s talents.

   Enter Eric Porter in a splendidly over-the-top performance as Harry Dominion, master of a criminal empire, showy sadist with a Napoleonic complex and a nasty sense of humor. When he and Beatty go head-to-head, first at the card table, then at Dominion’s baroque castle, things pick up nicely for an exciting conclusion.

   “Baroque” may be the best word to describe Kaleidoscope, which came out in the midst of that mid-60s resurgence of highly-embroidered rock posters, music and neckties. Director Jack Smight, who made this in between Harper and The Secret War of Harry Frigg, fills it with artsy camera angles, rococo sets and scenery, and somebody decided to shift scenes by having the image break up into kaleidoscopic patterns — nice job, that.

   My theory is that after Dobie Gillis, Warren Beatty tried very hard to be a serious actor, and after the debacle of Mickey One, he retreated into lightweight stuff like this (originally slated to co-star Sandra Dee) and Promise Her Anything before bouncing back with Bonnie and Clyde.

   Whatever the case, everyone involved treats Kaleidoscope with the seriousness it deserves (not much) and the result is a pleasant time-killer. Nothing more, but nothing less.

THE CASE AGAINST BROOKLYN. Columbia Pictures, 1958. Darren McGavin, Maggie Hayes, Warren Stevens, Peggy McCay, Tol Avery, Emile Meyer, Nestor Paiva. based on a True Magazine article “I Broke the Brooklyn Graft Scandal” by crime reporter Ed Reid. Cinematography: Fred Jackman. Director: Paul Wendkos.

   Based on article about massive corruption in the Brooklyn Police Department in the 1950s, The Case Against Brooklyn is a little known but still impressive example of late-in-the-game film noir. Frustrated by his inability to crack down on betting gangs in the New York City borough of Brooklyn, the D.A. co-opts the entire graduating class of new police academy cadets to work undercover for him.

   One of these, older than the others, is an ex-Marine named Pete Harris (Darren McGavin), who in search of both glory and a promotion, lets his job take over his life so completely that in the end his obsession has destroyed it as well. Even though happily married at the beginning of the film, in order to work his way into the gang, he romances a new widow (Lil Polombo, played magnificently by Maggie Hayes) so well that she finds herself falling in love with him.

   Although filmed on a low budget, the story doesn’t pull any punches, except perhaps how far Pete is willing to go with his faux romance with Lil. The cast may consist entirely of low profile actors, but they are all professionals, and they know exactly what they are doing. And as in all good noir films, the action is both snappy and violent, and the photography makes good use of interesting angles as well as darkness and the light and the shadows in between. And the ending? Well nigh perfect.

   Nicely done, all around!

Added Later: Here’s Walter Albert’s take on this same movie.

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