Crime Films

UNCUT GEMS. A24, 2019. Adam Sandler, Julia Fox, Kevin Garnett, The Weeknd, Idina Menzel, Eric Bogosian, Judd Hirsch, John Amos, Mike Francesa. Written & directed by Benny Safdie and Josh Safdie.

   It is possible for an actor like Adam Sandler to be nominated for an Oscar? There’s talk about it, and if I weren’t totally out of the loop when it comes to Academy Awards (I have not had any interest in any of the films that have been nominated over the past several years, and I mean none), I’d say that the talk is entirely justified.

   He should be nominated, in other words, but whether he will be is another matter altogether. In Uncut Gems he plays Howard Ratner, a sleazy but only semi-shady jewelry store owner in Manhattan’s midtown diamond district. Always sharply dressed with a smile on his face, he’s always in trouble with his bookies, for one thing, and constantly juggling his bets around to pay off another.

   This a life that that not guarantee him a lot of friends. His marriage is crumbling, as much as he tries to save it, but having a mistress on the side does not help matters. His one hope, as the movie begins, is a rock he has managed to import from Ethopia containing what he thinks is a fortune in uncut gems. To this end, he attracts the attention of Boston Celtics basketball player Kevin Garnett (who very effectively plays himself) with whom Howard swaps the stone on a temporary basis for other’s NBA championship ring.

   Things do not go well. Howard’s minor victories always seem to have a catch to them, and as sharp as he outwardly thinks he is, the losses keep piling up. Whether we would ever hang out with such a character — I’m speaking you and I — is doubtful, but if you can watch this movie without empathizing with him, you’re a better person than I, Sandler’s portrayal of him is well-nigh perfect.

   You’ll have to judge the ending for yourself. I don’t think I was well enough prepared for it, and yet in retrospect, it’s also inevitable and fitting. Do be prepared for a non-stop torrent of F-words, and if you’re allergic to hand-held cameras you might want to stay away altogether.

   But if you do, you’ll miss the performance of Adam Sandler’s career. He fits the role of a small grifter of a man whose luck always turns out bad, no matter how hard he tries, as if the part was written for him — and if it was, then all due credit to the Safdie brothers as well.

THREE CAME TO KILL. United Artists, 1960. Cameron Mitchell, John Lupton, Steve Brodie, Lyn Thomas. Director: Edward L. Cahn.

   The benchmark for movies such as this — a family being held hostage by a gang of killers planning to assassinate some high government official — is probably Suddenly, the film released in 1954 in which Frank Sinatra’s target is the President of the US. [My review of that film can be found here.]

   Even though that earlier film is much more well-known, I found myself enjoying this one a whole lot more. The target is the head of some small (fictitious) Middle-Eastern country who is about to fly out of the US from the Los Angeles airport> The reason this film is a lot more believable and suspenseful (if those two qualities are not one and the same) is that Cameron Mitchell and Steve Brodie look exactly like the kind of guys who might be hired could carry out such an assignment. Tough and professional all the way.

   It goes without saying– doesn’t it? — that they do get tripped up, but their plan is a good one, and they do come awfully close to carrying it out. This is a low budget film, but it’s still an enjoyable one, with one caveat I can’t help but mention. Whoever had the final say on this film must have thought the viewership was going to consist of folks with movie IQ’s of less than 80. All the ever present voice-over narration managed to do is to repeat in detail what was plain as day to see on the screen.

5 AGAINST THE HOUSE. Columbia Pictures, 1955. Guy Madison, Kim Novak, Brian Keith, Alvy Moore, Kerwin Mathews, William Conrad. Co-producer & co-screenwriter: Stirling Silliphant, based on the book by Jack Finney. Director: Phil Karlson.

   I’m not sure where it fits in historically, but this is a very early heist film, one that shows, as almost all of them do, how easily “perfect plans” can go wrong. Target: Harold’s Club, one of the most impregnable casinos in Reno of its era. The perpetrators: a small group of Korean War veterans going to college in Arizona on the GI Bill.

   Which explains why at least two of them (Guy Madison and Brian Keith) looks so much older than the other students on campus. The latter is having PTSD problems; the former, who is busy trying to persuade Kim Novak, a glamorous singer at a local student hangout, to marry him, is not in on the plan until too late.

   The first half of the film plays out at a near sophomoric comedy level — campus hi-jinks and so on — and it’s even hard to take the second half seriously when the “perfect plan” is as unworkable as it is. But any movie with Kim Novak in it is worth watching. What a beautiful woman she was. I wish it had been filmed in color. I really do:

THE NIGHT HOLDS TERROR. Columbia Pictures, 1955. Jack Kelly, Hildy Parks, Vince Edwards, John Cassavetes, David Cross. Screenwriter-director: Andrew L. Stone.

   The moral of this story is simple. Never pick up hitchhikers. That’s the mistake that Gene Courtier (Jack Kelly) makes. Giving a ride to Vince Edwards leads to a gang of three young hoodlums, including a very youthful John Cassevetes, taking over Kelly’s home and terrorizing his wife (Hildy Parks) and two small children.

   The set-up is promising, but the fact is that the gang doesn’t really seem to have a plan in mind — first forcing Kelly to sell his car, then holding him for a ransom to be paid by his rich father. They go through the motions, but none of the three has the hair-trigger level of viciousness vthat would keep the viewer (me, that is, in this case) at the edge of his seat.

   They also commit too many dumb mistakes, making their ultimate downfall all but preordained, in a wrap-up that, once the police are called in, is all too perfunctory. With the cast that this one has, it’s hardly uninteresting, but given a choice, you’d be better off watching The Desperate Hours instead, a film made the same year, but one that’s far better structured.


PROJECT GUTENBERG. Hong Kong/China. 2018. Originally released as Mo Seung [“unique”]; in Chinese: 無雙. Chow Yun-Fat, Aaron Kwok, Zhang Jingchu, Catherine Chow, Wenjuan Feng. Written and directed by Felix Chong.

   Lee Man (Aaron Kwok) is an artist suspected of being involved with the legendary counterfeiter The Painter (Chow Yun-Fat) in jail in Thailand. Transferred to Hong Kong to help in the investigation of Inspector Ho (Catherine Chow) into the Painter, the nervous and timid artist recalls his tumultuous history with the master counterfeiter.

   Told in a non-linear style, the film jumps back and forth showing how Lee failed in his career as an artist after going straight having started out as a counterfeiter, how he was estranged from his artist wife Yuen (Zhang Jingchu), and met the charismatic and brilliant Painter.

   Playing brilliantly on audience expectations of Chow Yun-Fat’s past films, the Painter is handsome, brilliant, a one-man army, and as Lee soon discovers to his distress, a ruthless, violent, and volatile criminal with international ties and a plan to counterfeit American dollars that is unprecedented in its ambition.

   Stylish set pieces, like a holdup of a special armored car carrying the inks used in printing dollars, shootouts in the style of John Woo, and an explosive gun battle with a greedy military leader wanting to buy the counterfeiting process Painter and Lee have created, punctuate the film, while the complex mix of characters and Chow Yun-Fat’s increasingly violent and inhuman behavior keep the viewer watching.

   And if all was going on was a story about the young artist being seduced by and eventually turning against the older smoother criminal who turns out to hide a monster beneath the cool exterior and about the cops closing in on them, this would be a well done action crime drama.

   But something more is going on with Project Gutenberg, and it becomes clear toward the end when almost everything you have seen before, an unreliable point of view character, and one shocking twist after another elevate this to something quite different than what you have been watching, or think you have been watching.

   Aaron Kwok and Zhang Jingchu are attractive leads, but the film works because of the viewers’ expectations and knowledge of Chow Yun-Fat’s film history as the charismatic gangster hero with the magic guns and charmed life. The whole movie turns on the viewer’s expectation that this is a different movie than it actually turns out to be, and that is what makes it work.

   It does drag a bit here and there, and some are going to hate the fact it has subtitles.

   But while this is no Usual Suspects (might as well mention it, everyone is thinking it), it does take a fairly standard story of a young man seduced into crime by an older more charismatic figure who proves to have feet of clay, and turn it on its head at every point while providing thrills and spills and then ripping the rug out from under the viewer repeatedly until he is beaten into admiring submission.

   Yes, unreliable point of view characters are kind of cheating, but only if the movie doesn’t deliver, and this one mostly does, right up to the shocking finale when the Painter gets his comeuppance.

   I warn you though, you may kick yourself a bit for having been taken in emotionally as well as by the clever plot twists or hate the movie for leaving you rugless on a cold bare floor when the credits roll.

HOUSE BY THE RIVER. Republic Pictures, 1950. Louis Hayward, Lee Bowman, Jane Wyatt, Dorothy Patrick, Ann Shoemaker, Jody Gilbert. Based on the book by A. P. Herbert (Methuen, UK, 1920; Knopf, US, 1921). Director: Fritz Lang.

   House by the River is a prime example of a Victorian melodrama and/or Gothic noir. It has its flaws, but with an outstanding cast and Fritz Lang at the helm, it overcomes its lack of a substantial budget to become a movie that more than holds its own today. (Maybe even more so. Bosley Crowther of the The New York Times panned it, quite oblivious to what most moviegoers see in it today.)

   I do not know much about Fritz Lang’s career, and why he was working for the less than stellar Republic Pictures at the time (1950), but the moody atmosphere of death by misfortune (“accidental” strangulation) of a young housemaid by her employer (Louis Hayward) when she refuses his advances — and the aftermath — is remarkably well done, especially the scenes in which Hayward is frantically looking up and down the river in a small rowboat for the wood kindling bag in which he and his partially lame brother (Lee Bowman) disposed of her body makes this, in my opinion, a must-see for any devoted fan of film noir.

   Whew. Let me take a breath. I didn’t realize that that came out as one long sentence until just now. Louis Hayward at first plays his character, a mostly failed writer, as an urbane cad, and gradually works his way up (or down) to showing his true colors as an unmitigated cad. Lee Bowman had been forced into aiding and abetting him for the sake of Hayward’s wife (Jane Wyatt), only to find most of the suspicion of the crime falling on him.

   That’s the story. You can imagine what happens from this point on, or if not, the movie itself is easily available. Do watch it. I couldn’t give it an “A,” I don’t think, but it’s far better than average.

FINGER MAN. Allied Artists, 1955. Frank Lovejoy, Forrest Tucker, Peggie Castle, Timothy Carey. Director: Harold D. Schuster.

   The opening voiceover narration took me back right away to the old time radio show Night Beat, which Frank Lovejoy starred in for two years between 1950 and 1952. His voice was unmistakable: strong, no-nonsense and gritty, perfect for radio and not a bad choice, either, for this full notch better than average crime drama.

   In Night Beat, he played Randy Stone, a Chicago newspaperman who spent his evenings out on the streets looking for human interest stories, and always finding them. He’s on the other side of the law in Finger Man, a three-time loser named Casey Martin who’s caught hijacking a truck one time too many. His only way out of a long prison sentence is to work on the inside to help the cops bring down a multi-state racketeer named Dutch Baker (Forrest Tucker).

   Helping him make a solid contact with Dutch is a girl (a very pretty Peggie Castle) who used to work for him. (Doing what is left unsaid.) Casey thinks the only way to get in solid with Dutch is to act as tough as he can, and that’s exactly what he does. Dutch’s second-in-command, Lou Terpe, played in his usual over the top fashion by Tim Carey, doesn’t convince so easily, with devastating consequences.

   With Casey as solidly caught between the law and the head of the underworld as he is, Finger Man is a late but very solid entry in the category now known as film noir. In spite of budget limitations, it’s well directed and it packs quite a punch. There’s a lot going on in this one, and in my opinion, it’s well worth your time — less than 90 minutes — to sit down, make yourself comfortable, and enjoy it to the hilt.

RACE STREET . RKO Radio Pictures, 1948. George Raft, William Bendix, Marilyn Maxwell, Frank Faylen, Harry Morgan, Gale Robbins. Director: Edwin L. Marin.

   Although available on DVD from Warner Archives, Race Street is largely a rather obscure one. even if considered film noir, a popular category now, if ever there was one. It has a decent cast, but I think the reason hardly anyone remembers or talks about it today, is that as a film, it’s mostly a mediocre one. It has its moments, including a few flashes of hard-boiled action, but it’s far too talky to stand out in a field filled with so many other crime films that came out around the same time and had a lot more to offer.

   George Raft plays the kind of bookie whom other bookies lay off their larger bets on, but a new gang is in town (San Francisco), and they’re beginning to push their way in,. What they offer is “protection” and they show no remorse in demonstrating what happens to guys who don’t take them up on it. William Bendix plays a childhood friend who’s also a cop, and who tries to persuade Raft to let the police take care of the problem.

   Raft will have nothing to do with it, of course, not even when one of his friends dies after being pushed around a little too hard. It doesn’t stop Bendix from talking and nudging and trying to persuade him otherwise. A couple of lengthy musical numbers featuring Gale Robbins as the lead vocalist are well done, but move the story along, they don’t.

   Marilyn Maxwell as a sultry brunette this time around plays Raft’s girl friend, a very eye-pleasing girl friend, to be sure, but her role in the story is, well, shall we say not particularly well filled out. If I’d been in charge of production, say, I’d have cut the musical numbers and given her story line the amount of running time it really needed.

   Since it’s far too late for the real director to have taken my advice, alas, he didn’t. While the end result is watchable, especially if you’re a George Raft fan — and to tell you the truth, I think his performance here is one of his better ones — you probably won’t remember it for more than ten minutes or so afterward.


JOHNNY COOL. United Artists, 1963. Henry Silva, Elizabeth Montgomery, Richard Anderson, Jim Backus, Joey Bishop, Brad Dexter, Wanda Hendrix, Marc Lawrence. Based on the book The Kingdom of Johnny Cool, by John McPartland. Director: William Asher.

   The character played by William Campbell in Backlash [reviewed here ], is named Johnny Cool, which is also the name of a violent low-budget movie from 1963 starring Henry Silva, who played Mexicans, Orientals and Indians in the movies, but was actually born in New York.

   Here he’s a Sicilian bandit exported to America to wipe out the rivals of deposed gang lord Marc Lawrence. Said rivals seem to be composed mostly of the outer fringes of Sinatra’s “Rat Pack.” (I think about half the cast was in Ocean’s Eleven) plus personalities and character actors like Mort Sahl, John Dierkes, John McGiver, Elisha Cook Jr and Jim Backus.

   With a line-up like that, Johnny Cool should have offered some fun, but it’s a largely mechanical thing, with lots of action but little excitement, dealt out by director William Asher — whose credits include Return to Green Acres, I Dream of Jeannie and the “Beach Party” movies.

   In Asher’s listless hands, the film gets no sense of progress or momentum; it’s simply a series of lackluster set pieces on the way to an oddly creepy ending that was probably accidental.

   Incidentally Johnny Cool was based on a Gold Medal Original by John McPartland, The Kingdom of Johnny Cool, which as the distinction of being unreadable.

— Reprinted from The Hound of Dr. Johnson #51, May 2007.

THE TAKE. Columbia Pictures, 1974. Billy Dee Williams, Eddie Albert, Vic Morrow, Frankie Avalon, Sorrell Booke, Tracy Reed, Albert Salmi, A Martinez. based on the novel Sir, You Bastard by G. F. Newman. Director: Robert Hartford-Davis.

   Billy Dee Williams, who was rather young at the time, plays a San Francisco cop who comes down to Paloma, New Mexico, to help harried police chief Eddie Albert bring Vic Morrow to justice, as a local organized crime leader named Victor Manso, posing as a highly respected community leader.

   What we the viewer soon know that Williams also has a hidden identity, that of a cop on the take. Apparently he’s been accepting graft money from mobsters for quite some time now, all the while building up his resumé as a dedicated cop on his way up. He even has a middle man in Sorrell Booke to launder his money for him.

   There are some occasional good scenes in The Take, a lot of good professional actors having some solid roles to play, and a more than a sufficient amount of TV style action (vicious thuggery and endless car chase scenes). The problem is twofold: (1) Williams is cocky without being likeable, and (2) there’s no sense of continuity between the good parts, the several there are. The result, not surprisingly, is a listless, jumbled up mess. Watchable, but once seen, there’s no particular reason you’d ever want to sit through this again.

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