Crime Films


REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:

   

MADONNA OF THE DESERT. Republic Pictures, 1948. Lynne Roberts, Donald Barry, Don Castle, Sheldon Leonard, Paul Hurst, Roy Barcroft. Screenplay: Albert Demond. Story: Frank Wisbar. Directed by George Blair. Currently available on YouTube.

   This low budget film about crime and faith and retribution is almost the stuff of a good movie. Anyway it would be a good movie with just a touch here and there and a better director, cast, and budget.

   Nick Julian (Sheldon Leonard) is a slick dealer in dubious art who cheats and if necessary, steals the art he needs. He’s recently discovered that Joe Salinas (Don Castle) a New Mexico rancher owns a fabulous Madonna statue believed to be a product of the Renaissance brought here by his Conquistador ancestors.

   Nick wants the statue and will get it anyway he can, and after a trip to New Mexico ends in a failure to buy the statue cheap he decides to steal it, but not by main force. Instead he has his forger make an expensive copy and will have tough but slick Monica Dale (Lynne Roberts) work her way into the arms of veteran Salinas and switch the statues.

   If you think you know where this is going, you have obviously seen this plot unreel a few hundred times in books, films, and television episodes.

   Monica arrives and goes to work, while Nick and his hired thug Buck (Roy Barcroft) wait nearby in a cabin. When she tries to make the switch at a wedding where Joe has loaned the statue out, the altar bursts into flame and Monica’s dress catches fire. But the Madonna does not burn and miraculously Monica is not burned.

   About this time, Tony French (Donald Barry) shows up, a bitter con just out of prison who has found out about Nick’s plans. His appearance complicates things for Monica who is suffering doubts and a major change of heart and falling for Joe despite his foreman Pete (Paul Hurst) being suspicious.

   You can figure out from here than Nick and Tony will cancel each other out, and there will be a happy ending after a little gunplay. Joe even turns out to be less of a sap than you think.

   This is just barely a medium time passer so long as you aren’t actually paying to see it. Leonard and Barry could do this in their sleep, and don’t, but it’s a near thing. Roberts isn’t quite up to the lead here, or is betrayed by the direction and having no one better than Don Castle to play off of in her best scenes. In any case she falls flat both as a bad girl and a reformed bad girl, and has little to work with anyway.

   Castle is a nice looking guy, but he delivers his lines like he was in a high school play. That’s enough to kill the big emotional scenes where he talks about the Madonna saving him after he was crippled and in a wheelchair when he came back from the war. I’ve heard car insurance pitches delivered with more emotional impact. Roberts tries hard but must have been fighting a yawn the whole time.

   This kind of story requires more than just a flat presentation. Add some moody photography, a couple of leads with a modicum of charisma, and a push here and there to the corn, and it would work. This one is too cheap to even manage an inspirational musical score. There’s not even a closeup of the Madonna using effective lighting, just as well as it looks like a plastic replica from a Vatican souvenir shop.

   I’ve seen episodes of half hour syndicated television series from the Fifties filmed more imaginatively.

   It’s almost a good enough plot to work, almost a decent little movie. Unfortunately pros like Leonard, Barry, and Hurst can’t save it from Castle’s bland hero or Roberts miscast bad girl, and even a charismatic pair of leads would have trouble with this direction and unimaginative production.

   I will give it this, though. Barry puts some real energy into his scenes, and if the movie had concentrated on his character it might have been a solid little B crime drama. It doesn’t, and it isn’t, and nothing relieves the flat-footed production.

   

SHOOT ’EM UP. New Line Cinema, 2007. Clive Owen, Paul Giamatti, Monica Bellucci. Screenwriter-director: Michael Davis.

   There’s a host of other people in this movie, mostly of them ending up dead, but the three that I listed above are all that really matter. Clive Owen is the man who witnesses a pregnant woman being run down and attacked; he rescues her, she dies, but somehow in the confusion he manages to deliver the baby. He needs assistance, and quickly, but where? Monica Bellucci as Donna Quintano, a prostitute who agrees to help.

   Their problems are not over, however. Paul Giamatti, as brilliant as always, is the head of the squad of men who are on their trail from that point on — until the end of the movie, and who end up wholly frustrated in what turns out to be an entirely useless chase. For as we all know, the good guys always aim right the first time, and the bad guys couldn’t hit the inside of a barn from inside the barn.

   

   Cannon fodder is all they are. What seems like thousands of bodies pile up, but I’m sure I read somewhere that there were only 150. Some people have little else to do with their time than to create statistics like this. Don’t look at me. All I did was watch it.

   The sexy scenes are minimal. There are a few gross out scenes, that is true, but other than that, this is a movie filled with non-stop movie violence. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

   What I think is that this is a even better Jack Reacher film than Jack Reacher, the film itself, the one with a pint-sized Tom Cruise trying to fill Jack Reacher’s shoes. He did surprisingly OK, but Clive Owen does an even better job playing an antisocial and psychotic hero, the kind of guy who drifts into town and waits for trouble to find him.

   Which it certainly does in this film, along with a girl who detests him at first — no, that’s unfair — actively dislikes him, but then as she’s also caught up in their plight together, she learns to like him a lot better.

   My purpose here is not to tell you how much I liked this film, or not, but to let you know what to expect if you decide to watch it anyway, in which case, my job is done.

   

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:

   

JO PAGANO – The Condemned. Prentice-Hall, hardcover, 1947. Perma Star, paperback, March 1954/ Also published as: Die Screaming (Zenith, paperback, 1958).

THE SOUND OF FURY. United Artists, 1950. Re-released as Try and Get Me!. Frank Lovejoy, Kathleen Ryan, Richard Carlson, Lloyd Bridges, Katherine Locke. Adele Jergens. Screenplay by Jo Pagano, based on his novel The Condemned. Director: Cyril Endfield.

   Philosophers and scientists posit the existence of a Life-Force, an energy behind the existence (and persistence) of life under the most adverse and unlikely conditions throughout the- world, and perhaps the universe. Well, I’ve come to suspect the existence of a Pulp-force, an irresistible pressure. that takes profound ideas and classic works of art, music and literature, vulgarizes them (This is not always a bad thing.) and turns them into Pop Art. So we get rock songs based on themes from classical music, Classics Illustrated comic books, and films like ROMEO AND JULIET (1996) and WAR AND PEACE (1956) with Henry Fonda as a Russian aristocrat.

   Case in point is a novel written by Jo Pagano in 1947, THE CONDEMNED. It opens with a taut, engrossing kidnap-and-murder, then flashes back to the events and social conditions that led Howard Tyler, veteran and family man, to hook up with sociopath Jerry Slocum for a series of petty robberies that culminate in tragedy. Pagano handles the action well enough – even memorably sometimes — and ratchets up the suspense quite well toward the middle, as a drunken and remorseful Howard tries to keep a grip on reality, but CONDEMNED is also bulked up with pages (And pages. And more pages.) of psychosociological ramblings, as if Pagano were determined to write an “important” book, and it stows up the momentum of what could have been a very fine read, in the Jim Thompson vein. There’s also a coda in the narrative (Based on a true story) that could have had dandy dramatic impact, but here seems merely moralizing.

   THE CONDEMNED was turned into a movie in 1950, released as THE SOUND OF FURY, directed by Cyril Endfield (Better known for epics like ZULU and SANDS OF THE KALAHARI) and adapted by the author, whose screen credits also include JUNGLE MOON MEN. It’s a creditable effort, with effective performances from Frank Lovejoy and Lloyd Bridges (Not usually the most evocative actors in the business) and truly moving turns by Kathteen Ryan as Howard’s worried wife, and Katherine Locke as a pathetic floozie. And I mean they take stock parts and really make them live, helped considerably by Pagano’s writing and Endfield’s feel for character. There are also some effective stylistic flourishes — swiped from other B-movies, but useful nonetheless — like a drunken binge filmed entirely in tilted camera angles, or a robbery shot in one take from inside the getaway car.

   But there are also Important Messages to contend with, and the notion that this movie has to Say Something. So a handful of well-meaning characters try to tell us moviegoers the Meaning of All This, and they get awfully tiresome in the process. Not enough to completely kill the film, but they cripple it up pretty bad.

   And then the Pulp Force began working: SOUND OF FURY (Geeze, what a pretentious title!) was released with all due self-importance — The San Francisco Chronicle made it their “Premier of the Week” — and promptly died a dog’s death at the box office. Nothing daunted, the producers re-titled it TRY AND GET ME! and re-released it with lurid ads to play up its trashy aspects, and a few months after SOUND OF FURY made its pretentious debut, TRY AND GET ME –· the same film in a different wrapper — was unreeling at grind houses and burlesque shows.

   As for the source novel, THE CONDEMNED re-surfaced years later in drug stores and bus-stations as DIE SCREAMING.

— Reprinted from The Hound of Dr. Johnson #40, September 2005.

   

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:

   

THE MAGNIFICENT FRAUD. Paramount Pictures, 1939. Akim Tamiroff, Lloyd Nolan, Patrica Morrison, Mary Boland, Ralph Forbes, Steffi Duna, George Zucco, Robert Warwick, Albert Biberman. Screenplay by Gilbert Gabriel and Walter Ferris, based on the unpublished short story “”Caviar for His Excellency,” by Charles G. Booth. Directed by Robert Florey. Remade as Moon Over Parador (1988).

   President Alvarado (Akim Tamiroff) is the wise leader of a poor South American nation negotiating with wealthy American Harrison Todd (Ralph Forbes) to save his country, but when Alvarado is assassinated it falls to his right hand man fast talking Yankee Sam Barr (Lloyd Nolan) to cover up the crime so that Alvarado’s crooked successors and Sam can get the money.

   To that end Sam has the bright idea of employing theatrical impersonator Jules LaCroix (Tamiroff) to impersonate Alvarado until the deal is sealed and then take his bribe and run. And it seems the perfect plan, with Sam so close to the President no one will doubt his word that Alvarado survived the assassination attempt. Especially with crooked general Robert Warwick and Police Captain Albert Biberman behind him.

   All he has to do is keep the honest Dr. Luis Virgo (George Zucco) away until the deal is sealed and limit who sees LaCroix to a distance.

   Sounds easy enough until the complications start to pile on, but then it did in The Prisoner of Zenda too.

   Complications include the French policeman Duval (Eugene Crossart) who has just shown up to arrest Jules LaCroix for crimes he committed in France and has been a fugitive from for years. Or Mme. Geraldine Genet (Mary Boland), the famous diva who once was President Alvarado’s lover, and who is there accompanying Claire Hill (Patrica Morrison) as her chaperone as she travels with fiance Harrison Todd.

   Then there is the general greed of all the parties involved including LaCroix who finds he likes being President Alvarado and Mme. Genet and Sam’s less than trustworthy partners who are infighting over who replaces Alvarado.

   Add beautiful Claire and Sam Barr falling for each other, and Carmelita (Steffi Duna) a Spanish dancer who thinks Sam is already hers and doesn’t like his new attention to Claire, and things are starting to get sticky.

   Nor does it help when Sam starts having second thoughts about this little con game and his partners arrest him and throw him in prison with plans for him to “escape” all too easily and collect a bullet in the back. All the while Jules LaCroix is starting to be infected by the nobility of the late President he is impersonating and wondering if the country wouldn’t be better off with Dr. Virgo in charge, certainly as Sam’s partners seem to be planning another assassination.

   If this sounds like the kind of fast paced pulp story you might have found in the pages of Argosy, Blue Book, or Adventure you aren’t far off, especially considering the screen story is from Charles G. Booth, one of Joe Shaw’s Black Mask Boys who wrote novels like The General Died at Dawn and Mr. Angel Comes Aboard (and picked up an Academy Award for best story for The House on 92nd Street, ironically also with Nolan starring).

   The pacing is that of a pulp story too: tough, fast paced, slightly screw-ball, and filled with eccentric colorful characters. This might be a minor A from Paramount, but the money spent on it shows in the sets and production values.

   It’s mostly a showcase for Nolan and Tamiroff who are clearly having fun making it. Nolan, sporting a pencil thin mustache, is playing a familiar role for him, the fast-talking, fast-thinking semi-honest smart guy who goes good at the last possible minute, and Tamiroff adds another great character to his repertoire. The two of them obviously enjoying themselves would be enough alone, but this one is lively fun played in just the right key of laughs, intrigue, action, romance, and Latin American Zenda-ing with wisecracks replacing sword fights.

   

OUT OF SIGHT. Universal Pictures, 1998. George Clooney (Jack Foley). Jennifer Lopez (Karen Sisco), Ving Rhames, Don Cheadle, Steve Zahn, Albert Brooks, Dennis Farina, with cameos by Michael Keaton & Samuel L. Jackson. Based on the novel by Elmore Leonard. Director: Steven Soderbergh.

   I can easily image that everyone reading this already knows the story, even if you haven’t actually seen the film. I’ll recap, though, just in case, but as briefly as I can. When a career bank robber by the name of Jack Foley (George Clooney) breaks out of a Floridan prison, he’s forced to share the trunk of the getaway car with a federal marshal by the name Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez). And as it so happens, as they talk about movies and other things, propinquity prevails and romantic sparks fly, as unlikely a thing as that might be.

   Except in the movies, of course.

   It was a huge hit, rightfully so, and the beginning of very successful movie-making careers for both of the two lead stars. But the secondary players may even be better in this one, thanks to dialogue that if it didn’t come straight from Elmore Leonard’s novel, it could have.

   It’s a wonderful romantic film, with a lot of shooting toward the end. I have only one kind of sour note to add to this short commentary, and I feel like a churl for bringing it up, but it did bother me somewhat. How did they get two adults in the same trunk at the same time? I don’t think I could fit curled up in a trunk all by myself, much less along with a fine young lady such as J.Lo.

   I’d be willing to try, though.

   

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:

   

BULLETS OR BALLOTS. Warner Brothers, 1936. Edward G. Robinson, Joan Blondell, Barton MacLane, and Humphrey Bogart. Written by Seton I. Miller and Martin Mooney. Directed by William Keighly.

   A dumb title on a story guaranteed to surprise no one, but so well-mounted I didn’t care.

   Edward G. Robinson stars as a veteran plainclothes cop, who opens the show by throwing a cheap hood through a glass door — Warner’s way of telling us he’s tough and straight — but not puritanical; he flirts with hard-boiled Joan Blondell, who runs a numbers game, and chums around with Barton MacLane as an upper-echelon gangster.

   Then, following a departmental house-cleaning, Robinson gets fired, fired up, socks the Police Captain and joins MacLane’s mob, where he quickly rises in importance. But don’t worry folks, it’s all a ruse, a sham, and a ploy, designed to get Eddie access to the really big boys who give the orders and rake off the profits.

   Well, as movie-schemes go, it’s not bad. The only real problem is Humphrey Bogart as MacLane’s trigger-happy Number Two, understandably upset by Robinson’s rise in the ranks and all too eager to demote him permanently.

   At this point Bullets or Ballots (what the hell does that title refer to?) becomes a vigorous game of cat-and-mouse, with Bogie and Eddie taking turns as predator and prey, trying to outmaneuver each other in games of gunfire and gangland politics, done with typical Warners panache: squealing tires, blazing guns and the gentle pitter-patter of fists on faces. I particularly liked one scene where Eddie walks into a room full of hostile hoods and director Keighly emphasizes his isolation with subtle camera placement and composition, then gradually eases the visual tension as Robinson wins them over.

   This was Bogie’s first film at Warner Brothers after his memorable Duke Mantee in The Petrified Forest, and his first team-up Edward G. Robinson, whom he would definitively kill in Key Largo. Here we have all the nastiness of Mantee, but none of that independent spirit that ennobled the earlier part. No, Bogie is the classic Meanie here: vicious, cowardly and compulsively watchable. There were better parts to come — and some definitely worse — but fans of Bogart need to see this one.

   

OUT OF LINE. Curb Entertainment, 2001. Jennifer Beals, Holt McCallany, Michael Moriarty, Christopher Judge, Rick Ravanello, William B. Davis, Alonso Oyarzun. Screenwriter-director: Johanna Demetrakas.

   While there is more than enough criminous activity in this film to warrant my categorizing it as a Crime Film, what it really is, when it down to it, is a romance. A Pretty Woman in reverse, you might say, and I’d be even more convinced of the comparison if I’d ever seen that other film. I’ve always meant to, but it’s still on my Must See list.

   But try this on for size. When Henri Brulé aka Henry Burns (Holt McCallany) is released from prison early, his parole officer is a young but very dedicated Jenny Capitanas (Jennifer Beals). She’s the kind of supervisor who finds the hard-nosed approach her fellow officers (all male) use not her style at all, and she finds herself taking him to the opera and teaching him tai chi, or if that’s not correct it’s close enough.

   The attraction between them is obviously not in the rule book, and as in all good noir films, you know that things are not going to work out well for them, nor do they. Th crime element comes in when Henri has to work on a deal he made to another inmate while still in prison: to mess with both a smooth crime boss’s business – and his wife.

   That’s all I’ll say about that, except that it does lead to the very much expected (and explosive) fireworks at the end. To me, the value of this film lies in the (probably) doomed romance, which produces fireworks of a different kind. If it works, and I think it does, a good share of the credit goes to Jennifer Beals, who I haven’t seen in a film she she started, way back with Flashdance, way back in 1983. As an actor, she’s not only beautiful, but intelligent too. Her body language and what you see in her face are fluid and natural. You can’t ask for more. At least I can’t.

   The overall film you can call only a qualified success, at best. I saw this online one of streaming channels, and I’d like to have a DVD as a permanent copy, but it seems to have gone out of print very quickly, and used copies have become pricey.

PostScript: I’ve just watched the trailer. It’s excellent.

   

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:

   

THE PUSHER. United Artists, 1960. Kathy Carlyle, Robert Lansing, Felice Orlandi, Douglas Rodgers, Sloan Simpson, Sara Amman, Jim Boles, John Astin. Screenplay by Harold Robbins, based on the novel by Ed McBain. Director Gene Milford

   While it may not be polished, one thing is for certain. The Pusher has grit. Loads of it, actually. Based on Ed McBain’s eponymous novel, this crime film has the aesthetic one might expect from such a movie. Lots of on location shots of tough, crime-ridden Manhattan streets, nightclubs galore, and a particularly unsavory drug dealer who admittedly preys on the youth and vulnerable women. Although clunky at times, with pacing that never quite works, it’s an overall solid work of independent film-making and an early example of what would later be come to be known as exploitation films.

   The plot follows New York police lieutenant Peter Byrne as he attempts to solve the mystery of who killed a young Puerto Rican junkie. As it turns out, his daughter has a nexus to the crime. Not only that, she’s also been hooked on heroin by the same dealer who is a suspect in the aforementioned murder. There’s also a romantic relationship at play. Byrne’s partner is engaged to be married to his daughter. And he has no idea that his beloved is an addict. A tough spot to be in.

   What makes The Pusher work is not so much the plot, but the atmosphere. Lots of scenes showcase urban poverty, cold and cruel sidewalks, and an overarching sense of despair and dissolution. Although staid compared to 1970s cinema, it’s still a movie that pushes the envelope for its time. An MGM film, this is not. Had this movie been made in the 1980s, it definitely could have easily been produced by Cannon Films and starred Charles Bronson as the lead.

   One final thing. The film’s villain, a heroin dealer who goes by the nickname Gonzo, is portrayed by Italian American actor Felice Orlandi. Although I wasn’t familiar with him until I saw this film, he gives an exceptionally convincing performance as a conniving street smart criminal. I had a chance to look him up and saw that he was in numerous crime films from the 1960s and 1970s, including some I have seen. Next time I watch them, I will be sure to keep an eye out for him.

   

DEADLY DUO. United Artists, 1962. Craig Hill Craig Hill, Marcia Henderson, Robert Lowery, Dayton Lummis, Carlos Romero, Irene Tedrow, David Renard. Based on the novel The Deadly Duo by Richard Jessup. Director: Reginald Le Borg.

   Based on the other work I’ve read by Richard Jessup, a fairly prolific writer of westerns and paperback crime fiction in the 50s and 60s, this might have been a good novel, an original from Dell in 1959, but even if the movie followed the book closely, which it very well may have, the translation still didn’t turn out all that well.

   The story elements are all there. Her son having been killed in a racing car accident, a wealthy woman wants to obtain custody rights to her grandson, now being raised by his now single mother (Marcia Henderson), a former stripper. To that end, he hires a struggling young attorney (Craig Hill) to go to Acapulco to offer the woman $500,000 to give up the child.

   When he gets there, she refuses outright, but her twin sister and her husband (Robert Lowery) have other ideas, one of which is murder, and of course you already know, I’m sure, how it is that they think they can pull it off.

   The plot is intricately structured and well planned out, but the ending is telegraphed well in advance, leading to a twist ending which is no surprise at all. There’s no fun in that! It is fun to see Marcia Henderson (whom I remember from her leading role in the long-forgotten TV series Dear Phoebe) play two roles, one a dark-haired and very prim and proper mother, the other a brassy blonde floozy whose dancing career is going nowhere, now that his sister has quit the act they had together.

   It is also fun to see how Robert Lowery, a long-time B-movie star in the 1940s, looked in the later stages of his career. With a mustache and generally older looks, he looks even more like Clark Gable or Cesar Romero than ever (on the left in the lowermost photo).

   

THE ENTITLED. Anchor Bay, direct to DVD, 2011. Kevin Zegers, Victor Garber, Laura Vandervoort, Devon Bostic, Dustin Milligan, Tatiana Maslany, Stephen McHattie, Ray Liotta, Anthony Ulc. Director: Aaron Woodley.

   I don’t get it. This is a kidnapping film, and the gimmick is that it’s supposed be one committed by one of the floundering 99%, taking it out on the rich 1%. I have no brief in favor of the 1%, or not in this way, at least, as three idle rich kids (two male, one female) are held for ransom, that of $1.000,000 each from their respective three fathers. These guys (Ray Liotta, William Graber, and Stephen McHattie) are probably as crooked as all get out, or so it is (more than) hinted at throughout the movie.

   The question is, or at least it was for me, which of the three sets of protagonists (the three kidnappers, the three kidnapees, thr three fathers) are the most unlikable. The leader of the kidnappers (Kevin Zegers) is, I suppose, the one we are to root for, but loving his mother who can no longer pay her own medical bills, is not enough to warrant a killing spree like this, which is exactly what happens in movies like this when things go wrong, and yes, indeed, do they ever.

   

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