Crime Films

Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:         

TIP-OFF GIRLS. Paramount, 1938. Mary Carlisle, Lloyd Nolan, Roscoe Karns, Buster Crabbe, J. Carrol Naish, Evelyn Brent, Anthony Quinn. Director: Louis King

KING OF ALCATRAZ. Paramount, 1938. Gail Patrick, Lloyd Nolan, Harry Carey, J. Carrol Naish, Robert Preston, Anthony Quinn, Dennis Morgan (as Richard Stanley), Richard Denning. Director: Robert Florey.

   In the late ’30s Paramount initiated a series of “B” crime features with a stock company of character players including Lloyd Nolan, Akim Tamiroff Buster Crabbe, Anthony Quinn, J. Carrol Naish and anyone else free that week.

   The films are, almost without exception, fast-moving, tightly-knit and a genuine pleasure to watch. Tip-Off Girls offers Nolan as an Undercover G-Man trying to penetrate a truck-hijacking ring run by Naish (playing in an embarrassing cliche-Italian style that would probably make true Italian lose their lunch) with the sinister aid of Crabbe and Quinn.

   King of Alcatraz, though it sounds like a Prison Movie is actually set aboard a studio-built tramp steamer, captained by Harry Carey and staffed by brawling-over-a-girl-in-every-port tars Nolan (again) and Robert Preston. When escaped super-gangster Naish (a little more restrained this time) sneaks on board with a gang including B-movie icons Tom Tyler, Gustave Von Seyfertitz and Anthony Quinn (again) the Paramount back-lot positively bristles with action.

   You won’t see either of these movies listed in any Year’s Ten Best lists, but they’re both brought off with a style and pace I found quite enjoyable.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

LEPKE. AmeriEuro Pictures Corp., 1975. Tony Curtis (Louis ‘Lepke’ Buchalter), Anjanette Comer, Michael Callan, Warren Berlinger, Gianni Russo, Vic Tayback, Mary Charlotte Wilcox, Milton Berle. Director: Menachem Golan.

   Just like the heist film, the gangster film may even be considered a subgenre of the crime film, a wide enough category to safely also include mysteries, police procedurals, thrillers, and what is now referred to as film noir. And within the gangster film genre itself, there can be detected numerous sub-genres.

   Menachem Golan’s Lepke, a biopic of Murder Inc.’s Louis “Lepke” Buchalter can be categorized as an “American Jewish gangster film,” a sub-genre that also includes Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In America (1984) and Barry Levinson’s Bugsy (1991).

   Tony Curtis, at a pivotal point in his career, portrays the title character in a role in which he fit perfectly. His accent, mannerisms, and physicality all serve him well here. There are some moments, such as when Lepke blows his top in front of his men, which are simply thrilling to behold. Curtis had a wide range of acting ability and could convey a lot of meaning with very little expression.

   Unfortunately, the rather flat script overall doesn’t leave Curtis all that much to work with.

   The film, which traces Buchalter’s life from a delinquent Brooklyn childhood to his ultimate execution at Sing Sing just doesn’t have enough tension to make the film nearly as good as it could have been. But Golan, who would go on to produce numerous 1980s action films, nevertheless deserves credit for telling Lepke’s story without sentimentalism. Lepke is neither a complete villain, nor is he a hero. He’s portrayed as deeply flawed individual, a man both constrained and defined by his ethnic and religious background.

LARCENY. Universal International, 1948. John Payne, Joan Caulfield, Dan Duryea, Shelley Winters, Dorothy Hart, Percy Helton, Patricia Alphin, Don Wilson. Based on the novel The Velvet Fleece by Lois Eby & John Fleming. Director: George Sherman.

   This little-known but still better than average film noir seems to have fallen through the cracks. With the huge popularity of genre, with any inconsequential black-and-white movie being swooped up and called a noir film, you’d think that someone would have recognized this as the real thing and put it out as something other than as an under the counter collector-to-collector DVD.

   Which is how you can find this one, and the only way, if you go looking. While not a full-fledged masterpiece, it’s certainly worth the time to go searching for it. As you might expect, Dan Duryea is one of bad guys, and the ruggedly handsome John Payne is a member of his gang of con-men. Their favorite modus operandi is letting their marks persuade themselves into backing some sort of real estate venture, while Duryea and the others are there, ready and willing to make off with the funds.

   In Larceny, Payne is the one who is elected to hustle a war widow (Joan Caulfield) into building a home for wayward boys as a memorial for her husband, killed in action in the war and for whom she is still mourning. And he’s so convincing as the dead man’s buddy that I think I would have believed him myself.

   Complications? You shouldn’t doubt it for a minute. She is obviously falling in love with him. He for her? It is difficult to say, but it seems to be the road the story is taking. But messing things up completely is a brassy blonde named Tory (Shelley Winters) who is nominally Duryea’s girl but who has a yen for Payne. Amd he for her, all things considered.

   And that’s not all. There are two other good-looking women in the tale who are more than willing to slip John Payne’s character their telephone numbers. I said ruggedly handsome, and I meant it.

   And as in true noir fashion, things do not end well for all of the participants. Everyone seemed to be having a good time making it, and I enjoyed watching, never quite knowing which way it was heading.

Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:         

LIMEHOUSE BLUES. Paramount, 1934. Re-released as East End Chant. George Raft, Anna May Wong, Jean Parker, Kent Taylor, Montagu Love, Billy Bevan, Eric Blore and (don’t blink or you’ll miss her) Ann Sheridan. Written by Cyril Hume and a bunch of others, including Philip MacDonald. Directed by Alexander Hall.

   Sheer unmitigated bosh, done up in the lavish Paramount style, and a lot of fun, though you may not respect yourself in the morning.

   George Raft stars as a Chinese-American gangster (!?) transplanted to London , where he and Anna May Wong run Paramount’s version of a Waterfront Dive, filled with fog, smoke, and smoggy folk, with musical numbers to rival a Cher concert.

   But this tawdry pleasure dome is just a cover for his smuggling activities, which have roused the ire of the constabulary and a loutish rival (Montagu Love) with a cute guttersnipe step-daughter (Jean Parker.) When George saves her from the law she returns the favor, and when he murders her step-father (unbeknownst to her) he offers her a job in his club and starts making her over into his ideal English gentlewoman.

   All is not My Fair Lady, however; it ain’t even Vertigo. This Galatea has no love for her Pygmalion (The writers hint that the White Woman in her naturally recoils from the racially-mixed Raft.) but Anna May Wong is murderously jealous of their non-relationship. When Jean meets Kent Taylor (in a scene that just about defines “meeting cute” — they’re caught in a puppy stampede) and falls for him, George gets lethally jealous himself. And the law is closing in on just about everybody.

   I should warn potential viewers that the ending is a sappy, badly-motivated thing that will please no one, and there’s plenty of subtle racism about the place, but this is done with that elegant Paramount polish, the look that took Lubitsch and Von Sternberg to the heights, and it’s awfully easy to watch. George Raft’s constipated thesping could almost be mistaken for Oriental inscrutability, and it’s just too bad he’s paired off with Anna May Wong’s genuine article — those wonderfully expressive eyes in her beautiful mask-like face show him up rather badly.

   The rest of the cast is typical Hollywood perfection, though: a regiment of solid supporting players effortlessly underpinning a movie that can’t be taken seriously but rewards an indulgent critical wink.

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.

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