Crime Films

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

BLACK LEGION. Warner Bros., 1937. Humphrey Bogart, Dick Foran, Erin O’Brien-Moore, Ann Sheridan, Helen Flint, Joe Sawyer. Director: Archie Mayo.

   Black Legion is a 1937 crime drama/proto-film noir directed by Archie Mayo and starring Humphrey Bogart. The movie is both a good suspense tale and a morality play, an attempt to categorize anti-immigrant vigilantism as distinctly anti-American. Overall, it’s a very good film, rich on atmospherics and with excellent acting by Bogart. Still, it comes across as just a bit too predictable, replete with a lumbering, albeit well-intentioned, political sermon at the very end.

   The plot follows factory worker and dedicated family man Frank Taylor (Bogart) as he spirals ever downward into a self-destructive morass of alcoholism, rage, and political violence.

   After being passed over for a promotion, with the position going instead to a man of Polish heritage, an aggrieved Taylor joins the Black Legion, a Midwest offshoot of the virulently racist Ku Klux Klan. (As an historical aside, it’s interesting to note that the studio considered, but ultimately rejected, the Romanian-Jewish born Edward G. Robinson to portray Taylor).

   For a time at least, Taylor (Bogart) ends up believing the nativist slop served up on the airwaves by the Black Legion. This shortsightedness will be his downfall. His political activities will end up costing him his marriage to his wife, Ruth, (Erin O’Brien Moore) and his friendship with neighbor and work colleague, Ed Jackson (Dick Foran). Ann Sheridan portrays Jackson’s girlfriend, Betty Grogan.

   Along for the ride is Joe Sawyer, portraying the oafish, brute Cliff Summers, a factory worker who introduces him to the Legion and their nefarious activities. While it is Cliff who is responsible for getting Taylor to attend a secret, subterranean Black Legion meeting, it is ultimately Taylor and Taylor alone who is responsible for nearly everything bad that happens next.

   Similar to how the KKK is portrayed in the excellent film, Storm Warning, also a Warner Brothers film which I reviewed here, Black Legion portrays the organization as much as a scam as a nativist organization. The film goes to great lengths to show the audience that the Black Legion’s leadership consists of con men primarily interested in money and profits. They’re selling nativism and a bunch of gullible fools are buying.

   Black Legion isn’t remotely a happy film. Indeed, there is something very noir about both the film and its protagonist. You don’t exactly feel sorry for Taylor at the end when he’s being carted off to prison for his role in the shockingly unnecessary death of his friend, Ed (Foran), who had threatened to expose the Legion’s activities to law enforcement.

   All told, Black Legion remains a very good movie, one that has a powerful, if clumsily delivered message. Unlike many other Bogart films which more than stand the test of time, it just comes across as somewhat dated.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

BORDER INCIDENT. MGM, 1949. Ricardo Montalban, George Murphy, Howard Da Silva, James Mitchell, Arnold Moss, Charles McGraw. Director: Anthony Mann.

   Border Incident is a film noir/crime film directed by Anthony Mann. It stars Ricardo Montalban as Pablo Rodriquez, a Mexican federal policeman, and George Murphy as Jack Bearnes, an American immigration agent. Set on the California-Mexico border, the movie follows the two government agents’ collaborative efforts to investigate the murder, and robbery, of Mexican farmworkers.

   Unlike many movies categorized as films noir, there are no femme fatales, snappy bits of dialogue, or urbane gangsters in suits and fedoras.

   There are, however, numerous moments of claustrophobic disorientation, including one stunningly effective sequence filmed on a water tower. There’s also a seedy neon-lit bar glimmering in the desert night and the harrowing murder scene of a helpless man. In Border Incident, nature is as noir as the city, with a desert canyon and quicksand proving that they can be just as deadly as a dame with a gun.

   The film begins in a semi-documentary style, leading the viewer to believe he is about to watch a standard crime drama in which the good guys defeat the bad guys, everyone will slap each other on the back, and go out for drinks. When we first meet Pablo Rodriquez (Montalban) and Bearnes (Murphy), they are both clean, well dressed, and in good spirits.

   It soon becomes apparent, however, that they’re not about to face anything typical. From the moment that Rodriquez goes undercover and befriends Juan Garcia (James Mitchell), a Mexican farm worker who wants to cross illegally, we get the sense that things aren’t going to go smoothly after all.

   Anthony Mann sets the mood perfectly. The Mexican side of the border is chaotic, disorienting, and filled with sketchy characters that come out at night. Among them are the Teutonic-looking Hugo Wolfgang Ulrich (Sig Ruman), the proprietor of a lowlife bar, and his two thugs, Cuchillo (Alfonso Bedoya) and Zipilote (Arnold Moss). Although we never learn what a gruff German bar owner is doing in a border town, we do soon learn that he’s knee-deep in crime and is willing to utilize brute force against his perceived enemies.

   As it turns out, Hugo is working with with an American farm owner on the other side of the border, a creepy looking guy by the name of Owen Parkson (Howard Da Silva) who treats his land like a plantation, and his workers like pawns on a chessboard. Parkson, along with his chief henchman, Jeff Amboy (Charles McGraw), are true villains. There’s nothing remotely amusing, let alone redeemable, about these two guys. Da Silva and McGraw may not have had star billing, but they are very effective in portraying criminals indifferent to human life and suffering.

   Rodriquez and Bearnes succeed in infiltrating Parkson’s estate, but nothing goes according to plan. Both men face dangers that seem to come out of nowhere, or at least take them by surprise. It’s as if both men never expected to face such adversity in their current assignment. There are some very tense moments, almost all of which take place at night.

   Border Incident isn’t a particularly well-known film noir, but it’s a very good one. The film successfully encapsulates many aspects of the noir genre, from the focus on the dark side of human nature to Mann’s skillful use of shadow and lighting to convey meaning. It’s a dark film, both metaphorically, and in its cinematography. Although it wasn’t a box office success, it is nevertheless a good example of what a talented director can do on a meager budget. Highly recommended.


THE GREAT ST LOUIS BANK ROBBERY. United Artists, 1959. Steve McQueen, Crahanm Denton, David Clarke, Molly McCarthy. Screenplay by Richard T. Hefron. Directors: Charles Guggenheim & John Stix.

   The title on the film itself is simply The St. Louis Bank Robbery, so you see how art gets corrupted. The only name in the whole cast and credits you’d recognize is Steve McQueen, which is a shame because this is written, played and directed with unusual insight by all concerned.

   And I mean they do a really credible job of bringing out what Chandler used to talk about in terms of a crime and its effect on the characters. It’s as if a bunch of real people were plunked down into a caper film and left to sort out their aspirations and disappointments in the film’s brief running time.

   The result compares with the best of the French New Wave films that were coming from the likes of Godard and Truffaut at that time and getting a lot more critical attention. St. Louis languished in oblivion but it’s well worth the few dollars and ninety minutes’ investment it takes.

   By the way, in researching this, I found that director Charles Guggenheim, also produced a TV series I’ve never heard of, back in the early 1950s — Fearless Fosdick!

GIRL ON THE RUN. Astor Pictures, 1953. Richard Coogan, Rosemary Pettit, Frank Albertson, Harry Bannister, Edith King, Charles Bolender, Renee De Milo. Directors: Arthur J. Beckhard & Joseph Lee.

   I didn’t mention him in the credits above, since he was onscreen all of five to ten seconds, but one of the reasons this film may even have survived today is that Girl on the Run is known to be the first screen appearance of Steve McQueen. He’s a guy trying to show off his strength to his girl friend, trying to ring the bell at a carnival game. (I’ll have to watch the movie again. I’m told that he appears again later, again very briefly, walking around the midway with his arm around the girl.)

   But the star of the film, Richard Coogan, is almost as well known, but only if you grew up watching Captain Video in the late 1940s — Coogan being the first actor to play the title role. And please note, title of the film to the contrary, he’s the one who’s actually on the run. He’s a reporter accused of the murder he didn’t commit, that of his boss, the newspaper editor who was getting too close to a vice ring working in and around a local carnival.

   Not to say that the title is completely wrong. Coogan’s girl friend, played by Rosemary Pettit, is on the run with him — she’s a witness who could clear him. Their refuge is at the carnival where the entire movie takes place, where they also hope to find the person really responsible for the editor’s death.

   So we get to see a lot of what goes on behind the scenes, in the dark passageways between and behind the concession booths and the various games of chance. And the hootchy-kootchy tent. Every carnival in the 1950s had one, including the one that came to my small town in upper Michigan every fall when I was a lad.

   What wonders lay behind the curtained gateway I (and my friends) could only imagine.

   I learned a new word watching Jeopardy, the TV game show, this week. It’s “Rubenesque,” which is a polite way (I think) of saying that what hidden delights lay behind that curtained door in Michigan are (I suspect) the same as are revealed in Girl on the Run.

   I will not pursue this thought further — you may, of course, use your own imagination — but one exception to the rest of the ladies and their tired and somewhat weary dance routines is the presence of Renee De Milo, whose first and last film appearance this was. I hope to add a photo of the lady. (And I have, as you can plainly see, below.)

   The movie is surprisingly fun to watch, much better than it had any right to be. Shot on a low budget and in an exceedingly cramped location, the production values are on a par of what passed for TV drama in 1953. Nonetheless, what’s also seen is the best of what noir films can display, in pure black and white imagery, with a cast of semi-stars (at best) and extras that fit one’s concepts of carney life to perfection.

   The story itself isn’t much. It is little more than a tease and an excuse. Maybe if you enter hoping only to see the dancing girls will you get your money’s worth, but once inside, you’ll see more than you expect, and no, that isn’t what I mean.

   While the link lasts, you may watch the entire movie online here.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

GIRLS ON PROBATION. Warner Brothers, 1938. Jane Bryan, Ronald Reagan, Anthony Averill, Sheila Bromley, Henry O’Neill, Elisabeth Risdon, Sig Rumann, Dorothy Peterson, Susan Hayward. Director: William C. McGann.

   Girls on Probation stars Jane Bryan and Ronald Reagan. Although the title suggests that the film will be some form of woman’s prison drama, jail plays only a minor role in this altogether good, albeit uneven, crime film.

   Although it’s not a film noir, Girls on Probation is still very much product of the late 1930s and does have several characteristics of what would later be considered film noir. These include a (somewhat) doomed protagonist, a series of events that spin out of control, and a mise-en-scène with a foggy night and a cheap boarding hotel.

   The plot follows the steps, or should I say, missteps, of a rather naïve twenty-something woman, Connie Heath (Bryan). Her brutish, although well-meaning, father (Sig Rumann) makes her life miserable. Even worse for Connie is her misbegotten friendship with her friend, the scheming Hilda Engstrom (Sheila Bromley), a co-worker who ends up getting Connie mixed up in two criminal acts.

   The first involves the quasi-theft of a dress, which leads to a police record for Connie. The second, and far more serious one, is an armed bank heist pulled off by Hilda’s thuggish boyfriend, Tony. This leads to a stay in the local jail for the two girls. As for Tony, he gets hard time, but later breaks out of prison to join up with Hilda in the girls’ hometown. Since his character is never really developed beyond that of an armed thug, it’s hard to feel bad for the guy when the cops plug him and he plunges off a stairwell.

   Throughout the film, Connie’s just a bit too nice for her own good. Fortunately, local attorney Neil Dillon (Reagan) is around to save the day and make everything right again. He also happens to become Connie’s love interest, employer, and fiancé.

   Interestingly enough, Bryan, who retired from acting early, and Reagan would remain in touch throughout the years. She and her husband, drug store magnate Justin Dart, would form part of Reagan’s inner circle.

   In the pantheon of great crime films from the 1930s and 1940s, Girls on Probation probably really doesn’t really amount to all that much. The film’s ending, in particular, is a bit too sentimental, with Connie needlessly apologizing to the dying Hilda.

   Still, Girls on Probation is an above average film with consistently good acting from Bryan. Reagan’s pretty good in this one too, although he’d reprise the role of a prosecuting attorney to much fuller effect in Storm Warning, which I reviewed here. Both films are worth seeing, although the latter is a much more serious film.

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:         

MY GUN IS QUICK. United Artists, 1957. Robert Bray, Whitney Blake, Richard Garland. Screenplay: Richard Powell and Richard Collins, based on the novel by Mickey Spillane. Directed by George White.

   You’re going to make a movie based on a book by the bestselling writer of the decade, so naturally you totally ignore the plot and instead do a poverty row rehash of The Maltese Falcon only with Mike Hammer instead of Sam Spade.

   Richard Powell, who wrote the screenplay with Richard Collins, obviously was no Spillane fan. A fine novelist (The Philadelphian) and top notch mystery writer (the Arab and Andy Blake series of screwball mysteries), he scrapped everything save the opening scene where Mike Hammer (Robert Bray) meets the prostitute Red in a late night diner, and sets out to avenge her death when she is brutally murdered.

   We’re in Los Angeles and Mike does have an office, a secretary named Velda, a cop pal named Pat Chambers, and he is a brutal lout, but from that point on you won’t recognize Spillane or Hammer, or the plot of My Gun is Quick the novel.

   Bray was a personable enough actor, most probably remembered as Lassie’s forest ranger owner in the color series, but as Hammer he is brutal, stupid, a slob, and can’t even wear the pork-pie right (neither could Kevin Dobson or Stacy Keach — the crown is not creased, which is why it’s called a pork-pie). Granted Spillane’s Hammer isn’t a barrel of laughs, but he is a snappy dresser, and however brutal and rude, he isn’t stupid.

   The falcon — I mean the Bianchi jewels — are the meaningless McGuffin, and the femme fatale is wholesome Whitney Blake, Mrs. B from Hazel, the television series based on Ted Post’s Saturday Evening Post cartoons about the impossible maid of the same name played by Shirley Booth. She’s about as seductive as coconut cream pie. (Well, okay, she’s nowhere near as seductive as coconut cream pie, but she is as wholesome.)

   The story and direction are all competent, but they are generic fifties private eye 101, which is the one thing Spillane’s Hammer never was. Love him or hate him, he was never just another private eye nor Spillane just another mystery writer. Hammer isn’t really a detective half as much as what Robert Sampson called a Justice figure, an avenger.

   It’s no accident that Spillane’s roots lie in Carrol John Daly’s Race Williams, Tarzan, Doc Savage, the Shadow, the Spider, Captain America, and the Saint (inspiration for Morgan the Raider). Hammer is closer to d’Artagnan (he’s a huge Dumas fan as well, with The Erection Set and The Long Wait both as inspired by The Count of Monte Cristo as Hammett’s Red Harvest) and James Fenimore Cooper’s Natty Bumpo, Hawkeye, than Poe’s Dupin or Doyle’s Holmes.

   Urban hero that he may be, Hammer is last of Rousseau’s ‘noble savages,’ the natural man arriving full blown without history or family, a force of nature, white hot, and consumed by a overarching sense of justice — if not law. The crudity of Spillane’s early work (he became a very good writer as he learned) never-the-less shows a deep seated identification with the post-war psyche and a natural affinity for the written word. You don’t have to like Spillane to recognize his power as a writer.

   To ignore all that, to ignore Spillane for what he is and Hammer as himself, as this film does, negates the whole point of Mickey Spillane’s role in the world of fifties popular literature.

   Bray’s Hammer is just another private eye, with just another case, and just another femme fatale. The plot would have been perfectly suited t,o an episode of 77 Sunset Strip (which did one Spillane plot seven times) or any of its numerous off shoots. Bray’s Hammer is everyman private detective, but he isn’t Mike Hammer though he is the closest physically to Spillane’s concept of the actors who have played the role.

   I can’t say much more. The people you suspect are the ones who did it, the brutality mostly consists of grabbing one small owner of a diner by his shirt, Velda isn’t much of one thing or the other, only another faithful private eye secretary, and Pat Chambers is just another best buddy cop to warn the hero about crossing the lines the hero of these things can’t see anyway. There is no attempt to capture anything of the feel of Spillane and Hammer.

   There’s a half decently shot bit where Hammer watches a murder investigation through the skylight of Blake’s split level beach house, but if that’s the films highlight’, you can guess what the rest is like. The climax and Bray’s version of the ‘I have to turn you in because I’m a detective’ speech are just flat. No one gets gut shot, blown away with a shotgun, or blown up by a gas-filled basement, much less shot by a baby in his crib, and Blake at worst looks like she never really expected to seduce anyone in the first place.

   I won’t say skip it, it is Spillane and Hammer, but watch it on Netflix, don’t buy it, even for $5. It’s just not very good, nor bad enough to be fun. The posters for the film are nice though. And yes, it’s the kind of movie where you review the posters. Watch Kiss Me Deadly, The Girl Hunters, or the Keach or McGavin series, even that little one off made for television movie set in Miami is arguably more interesting than this.

   Skip this, save as a completist, or just to see Hazel’s Mrs B. as a seductress.

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:         

A FINE PAIR. National General Pictures, 1969. First released in Italy as Ruba al prossimo tuo (1968). Rock Hudson, Claudia Cardinale, Leon Askin, Ellen Corby. Tony Lo Bianco. Score by Ennio Morricone. Directed by Francesco Masselli.

   Taxi driver carrying Esmerelda Marini (Claudia Cardinale) into New York: Over there is the United Nations building.

   Esmerelda: I can see they aren’t getting anything done from here.

   Sadly that is the best line in this rather strained caper comedy that never quite lives up to the jaunty Ennio Morricone score.

   Rock Hudson is dour police Captain Mike Harmon, a pain in everyone’s ass, who was close to Esmerelda’s policeman father with young Esmerelda having a schoolgirl crush on him that has carried over to the present day.

   It’s not a match made in heaven though, Esmerelda is a rebel and jewel thief.

   She wants Hudson to help her return the jewels she stole in Austria from a wealthy American’s villa and he reluctantly agrees (all too easily).

   Of course she is breezy, fun, amoral, smart, sexy, and only half clothed most of the time so it is natural the stiff cold Captain is going to melt — almost literally when he has to get the villa they are robbing to 194 degrees to disable the alarm and she holds the place up in nothing but wet bra and panties.

   Nor does he suspect he returned paste jewels while she stole the real ones — again.

   By the time he finds out she has to return more jewels in Rome, he is hooked on her and crime, and they have a big row when she decides to turn hones,t so Mike pulls off the heist and frames her having her own uncle arrest her so she can’t leave.

   After a narrow squeak the two end up happily together.

   And it just ends.

   One thing, with Rock in black framed glasses you now know how he would look as Clark Kent or Rip Kirby.

   This light film would like to be something along the lines of A Man and A Woman, with an infectious score, flashy photography, and a naturalistic look. The problem is Francesco Masselli is a heavy-handed and unimaginative director, Hudson doesn’t seem comfortable with his character for the first half of the film, and while Cardinale is gorgeous and fun, she makes no sense as a character.

   Had they done this a few years earlier as one of those slick Universal films Hudson was so ubiquitous in from the late fifties through the mid-sixties, it might have been the light playful romantic comedy caper it was meant to be, but this is just a bore.

   Cardinale is beautiful, funny, sexy, and screwball, the scenery is lovely, and the two actors have some chemistry once Hudson is able to move into a more familiar mode, but it’s a highly unsatisfying film otherwise.

   I missed it the on its initial release and it has taken until now to see it. I wish now I had waited another couple of decades.

   Not bad so much as ho, hum.

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