Crime Films


Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:


KING OF GAMBLERS. Paramount Pictures, 1937. Claire Trevor, Lloyd Nolan, Akim Tamiroff, Larry Crabbe, Helen Burgess, Porter Hall, Barlowe Borland. Writing credits: Doris Anderson (screenplay), Tiffany Thayer (story), Ben Hecht & Charles MacArthur (neither credited). Director: Robert Florey.

   King of Gamblers is an immensely fun little “B” from Paramount, one of a series put out by that studio in the late 30s. These films, with titles like Dangerous to Know, Hunted Men, Tip-Off Girls, Illegal Traffic and Parole Fixers offered fast-moving stories, stylish direction and strong acting from a revolving stock company that included Robert Preston, Akim Tamiroff, J. Carroll Naish, Buster Crabbe, Anthony Quinn and (almost invariably) Lloyd Nolan.

   But they are primarily triumphs of Production. Someone at Paramount cared enough to get directors like Robert Florey, writers (sometimes uncredited) like Ben Hecht, Horace McCoy and S. J. Perelman, and cameramen and editors who knew how to lend class to tight budgets. And it shows. You can watch almost any film from this series and get an hour of solid entertainment from it.

   King of Gamblers features Tamiroff in his usual Mob-Boss stint, Lloyd Nolan as his reporter-nemesis and Claire Trevor as (you guessed it) the girl they both love. But the show gets stolen by an actor even I never heard of named Barlowe Borland.

   Who? That’s right, I guess. Borland was an Edmund Gwenn type before there was Edmund Gwenn, usually type-cast as the fussy professor or prissy butler, but here quite effective as Tamiroff’s “arranger” Maybe he’s so chilling because he doesn’t try to act nasty; whether he’s setting up Trevor’s seduction, abetting a woman’s kidnapping, or covering up a murder, he keeps up a cheery Dickensian demeanor quite in keeping with the modest virtues of the film itself.

   One to look for.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:


SOL MADRID. MGM, 1968. David McCallum, Stella Stevens, Telly Savalas, Ricardo Montalban, Rip Torn, Pat Hingle, Paul Lukas, Capo Riccione, Michael Ansara. Screenplay by David Karp based on the book Fruit of the Poppy by Robert Wilder. Director: Brian G. Hutton.

   Hot off his television role in CBS’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E., David McCallum starred in the hardboiled thriller, Sol Madrid. Featuring an alternatively psychedelic and jazzy score by Lalo Schifrin, Sol Madrid has McCallum portraying the eponymous title character, a cynical, at times ruthless Interpol agent tasked with bringing down a heroin ring run by flamboyant criminal mastermind by the name of Emil Dietrich (a scenery-chewing Telly Savalas).

   Set in Mexico, the movie also features Rip Torn as a sadistic mafia boss, Stella Stevens as a nice small town girl who gets herself mixed up with some unsavory characters, and Ricardo Montalban as Madrid’s Mexican Interpol contact who wants nothing more than to live it up and retire early.

   Although the plot really is quite basic with very little new to offer, the movie’s explicit depiction of heroin usage certainly pushed boundaries when it was first released. Not only does the movie begin with a seedy scene in a shooting gallery, there’s also a horrific sequence in which Rip Torn’s character tortures a girl by deliberately getting her hooked on dope.

   Despite some tense moments and some terse dialogue, the movie ends up feeling tremendously incomplete. Not only does one get the impression that some of the movie’s most important sequences may have been edited out, but one can’t help but wonder whether most of the actors in the film were simply there for their paycheck. In more ways than one, that is a real shame, for Sol Madrid really had the potential to be something far more than just another rather forgettable late 1960s studio production, albeit one with just enough punch to it to make you want to watch to the very end.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:


RUN ALL NIGHT. Warner Brothers, 2015. Liam Neeson, Ed Harris, Joel Kinnaman, Boyd Holbrook, Bruce McGill, Genesis Rodriguez, Vincent D’Onofrio, Common. Director: Jaume Collet-Serra.

   Because it’s a fairly recent movie and there’s quite a few reviews available online to read (this one from Sight & Sound magazine is particularly on point), I probably am not going to be saying all that much that’s new here about Run All Night.

   Still, it’s worth noting that, for those not familiar with the film, it’s is actually a quite engaging neo-noir feature, one that grips you tight and doesn’t particularly want to let you go until the very end.

   Combining the directorial talents of Jaume Collet-Serra and both the world-weariness and sheer physicality of Liam Neeson, this gritty crime film set primarily in Brooklyn and Queens, New York, feels more like a 1970s Charles Bronson/Steve McQueen/Roy Scheider movie than it does a sleek Hollywood action film. There’s murder, revenge, car chases, corrupt cops, ruthless gangsters, bright neon lights, and cold winter rain. There are back alleys, back rooms, and back streets.

   Neeson portrays Jimmy Conlon, a down on his luck, washed up enforcer for Irish crime boss Shawn Maguire (a nearly perfectly cast Ed Harris). Jimmy’s glory days as a hit man have come and gone. All he’s got now are bad memories and the bottle. He’s estranged from his son, Mike, and lives alone in an apartment several yards from an elevated subway platform. It’s a depressing life, especially in contrast to Shawn’s upper middle class lifestyle.

   All that changes when Maguire’s son Danny sets out to kill Mike for witnessing several murders that he has committed after a drug deal gone bad. That’s when our antihero Jimmy, who was throwing up from too much booze earlier in the film, turns into a Charles Bronson-type figure and decides that he’ll take on the entire city, the police included, if that’s what it takes to protect Mike and to redeem himself in his son’s eyes.

   It takes some suspension of disbelief to imagine this action all taking place on one rainy December night. Neeson’s character often looks tired, as if he’s beyond exhausted by both his present condition and by the crimes he himself has committed in the past.

   But that’s the point, and if anyone is well suited to this role it is Neeson who is able to convey an incredible amount of meaning in short, terse sentences and in body language alone. Neeson excels in portraying men carrying heavy moral burdens and that’s certainly the case in Run All Night. Look for rapper Common who portrays a Terminator-like hit man. It’s something else.

   One final observation: after watching this one on DVD not knowing whether I’d care for it or not, I can now safely report that I regret not going to see it on the big screen during its theatrical release last year. Next time a Liam Neeson actioner hits the theaters, I’m there.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:


BOXCAR BERTHA. American International Pictures, 1972. Barbara Hershey, David Carradine, Barry Primus, Bernie Casey, John Carradine. Director: Martin Scorsese.

   Produced by Roger Corman, the Depression-era crime film Boxcar Bertha has its share of sex, violence, and leftist social commentary. With director Martin Scorsese at the helm, however, this would-be exploitation film ends up being as much an art house film as it is a grindhouse movie.

   That perhaps, along with a stellar cast including Barbara Hershey as the title character and John Carradine as her partner in crime in taking on the greedy and mendacious railroad elites, is what makes this low budget, but high quality production, a memorable visual depiction of the shadowy borderlines between crime and political protest.

   At once a depiction of the tensions between haves and “have-nots” in Depression-era Arkansas and a character-based film about a young woman trying to navigate a life in that milieu, Boxcar Bertha isn’t the easiest movie to categorize. It’s a crime film about outlaws on the run as well as a romantic drama; a hang out movie as well as a buddy film.

   It’s a very personal film and a vehicle for a stridently pro-labor, pro-feminist, and anti-racist political message. There’s even quite a bit of religious, particularly Catholic overtones throughout, themes that would be explored time and again in Scorsese’s films. However one categorizes this movie, it’s definitely the case that Corman and Scorsese successfully captured lightning in a bottle with this unflinching portrait the dark side of the American Dream.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:


YOU AND ME. Paramount Pictures, 1938. Sylvia Sidney, George Raft, Robert Cummings, Barton MacLane, Roscoe Karns, Harry Carey. Director: Fritz Lang.

   “Genuinely odd but likable film.” That’s how Leonard Maltin described Fritz Lang’s decidedly uneven, but eminently watchable, gangster film/romantic comedy mash-up starring George Raft and Sylvia Sidney as two former jailbirds turned lovebirds. Both work in a department store run by a man who wants nothing more than to give parolees a second chance at building an upstanding life.

   Sounds typical enough, right?

   The thing is: Maltin’s correct.

   You and Me is nothing if not “genuinely odd.” With an Old World comedic sensibility with more than a dash of Yiddishkeit, an armed standoff in the children’s section of an Art Deco department store, and some captivating dreamlike montage sequences, this relatively obscure crime melodrama didn’t fare well at the box office.

   That’s not surprising, given how much of the movie feels as if it were almost an experimental film, a cult classic before there were cult classics.

   When looked at as a whole, the final product actually seems like a thought experiment in which Lang, either consciously or subconsciously, explored the possibilities of bringing both the aesthetic and thematic elements of German expressionism into the American crime film genre.

   Skillful use of light and shadow to convey meaning (check); a prominent spiral staircase (check); a subterranean meeting of criminals operating according to their own code with camera shots that look straight out of M (check).

   Some scenes, such as when a group of gangsters remember their time in the slammer, work extraordinarily well; others, such as when Sidney’s character instructs a coterie of criminals in basic math to demonstrate why crime (literally) doesn’t pay, fall flat. Yet, it’s difficult not to find some things to genuinely admire in this quirky film, one that surely left most audiences slightly baffled when first released in the late 1930s.

FIND THE LADY. Major Pictures/J. Arthur Rank, UK, 1956. Donald Houston, Beverley Brooks, Mervyn Johns, Kay Callard, Maurice Kaufmann, Edwin Richfield, Moray Watson, Ferdy Mayne, Anne Heywood. Director: Charles Saunders.

   I’ve categorized this old obscure British movie as a crime film, but in all honesty, it’s played a lot more for comedy than it is for thrills. To summarize quickly, though: when the starring lady (Beverley Brooks, as a fashion model from London) goes to spend New Year’s Eve with her godmother out in the country, she finds that the old lady has disappeared.

   But before that she has a funny (and perhaps at the time hilarious) encounter with the local doctor (Donald Houston) when their paths cross while their automobiles traverse a watersplash (a shallow ford in a stream) in opposite directions. The end result is the doctor falling face first into the water while the young lady’s car stalls and she has to walk into the local village for help.

   When the missing woman’s brother-in-law (Mervyn Johns) answers the door, getting back to the kidnapping, for that is what it is from the get-go, he says that she has been taken to a nursing home for seclusion and rest. We, of course, know that something is wrong right away. The old woman’s cane is there, her dog is there, and the replacement “maid” (Kay Callard) looks more like a gangster’s moll than I imagine that any gangster’s moll in the real world ever did. (She’s the one on the far right in the photo above.)

   The young woman and the doctor hit it off very well, and they decide to investigate together. Complicating matters is Miss June Weston’s other suitor (Moray Watson) who comes down from London to add some comedy relief to the proceedings.

   Most of the names I have dropping are totally new to me. I’d have thought, though, that Beverley Brooks (the beautiful brunette above and up at the top crowded into the phone booth with the doctor) would have had a longer career, but she didn’t. This movie, perhaps her only starring role, was the last one of her career.

   But you may noticed Anne Heywood’s name in the credits. She plays the receptionist at the inn (see the photo above) in this, only her second film. She’s very easy on the eyes as well.

Reviewed by DAN STUMPF


BLAST OF SILENCE. Universal, 1961. Written, directed by and starring Allen Baron. With Molly McCarthy, Larry Tucker and Peter Clune.

   A Christmas movie for noir fans and nostalgia buffs alike, and one that’s hard to forget.

   Back in the late 50s/early 60s — the time of the “New Wave” in France — there were quite a few American film-makers doing meaningful, personal, sometimes daring work on the ragged fringes of Hollywood: Minimalist Westerns like Ride Lonesome and Terror in a Texas Town, off-beat horrors such as Bucket of Blood and The Tingler, and memorable low-budget thrillers like Underworld USA, Murder by Contract and Blast of Silence.

   When I say that viewing Blast of Silence is like watching a bad accident in slow motion, it sounds like a put-down, but there’s really no other way to describe the sick sensation this simple tale evokes: A hit-man arrives in New York at Christmas to carry out a contract that somehow slips out of control. We know what’s going to happen from the first shot, and there’s nothing we can do but watch, in the words of one critic, “a man playing out his role and quietly awaiting his inexorable betrayal.”

   Along the way, there are some really atmospheric moments, striking photography — including location shots of Harlem, 42nd Street and Times Square at Christmas that seem like artifacts now. There are edgy/jovial grown-up Christmas parties, 1960s-style; cold snowless streets decked out for the Holidays; and some really fine acting by performers who shoulda been contenders:

   Larry Tucker is perfectly loathsome as a rat-loving double-crosser, but his only other role of note in the movies is “Pagliacci” in Shock Corridor; Mary McCarthy projects the same sensitive, intelligent femininity she projected in The Great St. Louis Bank Robbery (another neglected treasure from the same period), and as for Allen Baron, his acting has an unforced naturalism about it that matches his writing and direction very effectively indeed.

   As far as the other credits, the only name you’d recognize is Lionel Stander, who does the voice-over narration (oddly, in the 2nd-person) which was written by Waldo Salt, who deserves a footnote here: Salt was blacklisted in the McCarthy era (he is billed here as “Mel Davenport”) but the ordeal seems to have done him some good; his pre-blacklist films are competent but unmemorable things like The Bride Wore Red and The Flame and the Arrow, but afterwards he went on to respected work like Midnight Cowboy, Serpico and Coming Home.

   No such luck for Allen Baron, however. Blast of Silence remains an intriguing but obscure film — and perhaps the bleakest Christmas Movie ever.



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