Crime Films


Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


THE PUBLIC DEFENDER. RKO Radio Pictures, 1931. Richard Dix, Shirley Grey, Purnell Pratt, Ruth Weston, Edmund Breese, Frank Sheridan, Alan Roscoe, Boris Karloff, Paul Hurst. Based on the novel The Splendid Crime by George Goodchild (1930). Director: J. Walter Ruben.

   The Public Defender is a good, albeit somewhat simplistic crime film starring Richard Dix and Boris Karloff. The film benefits from rapid spitfire pacing, a believable protagonist, and its skillful utilization of humor to keep the overall mood light and fun. Directed by J. Walter Ruben, the movie definitely has its moments and its charms. But it doesn’t have all that much depth, either in terms of characterization or plot.

   The film follows Pike Winslow (Dix), a wealthy playboy who, under the alias, “The Reckoner,” seeks to absolve an innocent man of criminal charges against him. Joining him in his task are two men, The Professor (Boris Karloff), the brains, and Doc (Paul Hurst), the muscle. They are crime-fighting triumvirate that, unlike the bumbling cops, actually gets stuff done. Too bad then we never learn actually why these men have decided to become vigilantes.

   After Winslow learns that the father of his love interest, Barbara Gerry (Shirley Grey) has been unjustly imprisoned for a financial crime, he decides to seek out incriminating evidence that will both absolve Gerry and demonstrate who the real culprits are.

   Gerry’s attorney lets on that he knows what Winslow is up to. But he not deterred. As “The Reckoner,” Winslow puts fear into the hearts of the real criminals by … leaving them business cards with the scales of justice on them. It’s all good innocent fun, in a way. Although he’s a playboy superhero of sorts, Winslow’s a cheerful guy and definitely not a broody, morbid Bruce Wayne sort of guy. Truth be told, though, Batman’s costume is a thousand times cooler than that of The Reckoner. Plus, Batman had much better gadgets.

   Although Dix got top billing and was undoubtedly the star and box office attraction, Karloff has quite a presence in this one. He’s a poetry-quoting scholar who’s also evidently skilled in nighttime capers. Look for the fun scene with him using a flashlight to distract one of the criminal’s hired guns.

   All told, The Public Defender is a fun little crime film with a solid lead performance by Dix and some great Karloff moments. But it’s just not all much more than that.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


JOHNNY APOLLO. 20th Century Fox, 1940. Tyrone Power, Dorothy Lamour, Edward Arnold, Lloyd Nolan, Charley Grapewin, Lionel Atwill, Marc Lawrence. Director: Henry Hathaway.

   Johnny Apollo is an crime film that benefits greatly from an exceptional cast, good pacing, and notable proto-noir characteristics. Directed by Henry Hathaway, the film stars a dynamic Tyrone Power as Bob Cain, a somewhat idealist college student who, in order to help get his embezzler father (Edward Arnold) out of state prison, transforms himself into a lightweight gangster named Johnny Apollo. Of no real help to him is his father’s unpalatable lawyer, portrayed by Lionel Atwill.

   The story follows Cain (Power) as he teams up with a crooked and drunken attorney, Emmett Brennan (Charley Grapewin), and a gangster named Mickey Dwyer (Lloyd Nolan), to earn money so he can get his father out of prison. Joining them on their not particularly wild ride through crime is Dwyer’s girl, Lucky (Dorothy Lamour), who begins to loathe Dwyer. She also develops romantic feelings for Johnny Apollo/Bob Cain.

   Things get dicey when Brennan decides to double cross Dwyer. This leads us to an ice pick scene wherein Dwyer kills Brennan, a scene that begins with a staff member in a Turkish/Russian bath utilizing an ice pick. You just know what’s coming next! And if that’s not enough, the staff member leaves his workstation with the pick stuck there alone in the pile of ice. The camera captures it perfectly. Soon enough, Dwyer picks up the ice pick and enters the steam room. You don’t see him kill Brennan, but the callous nature of the crime is implied.

   Dwyer (Nolan) is a brute and a sadist, but he’s also capable of charm and genuine affection. In some ways, he is a more urbane, but crueler, version of Bogart’s character in The Petrified Forest. Bob Cain/Johnny Apollo is clearly the film’s protagonist, but Dwyer is just a bit more interesting of a character. Much as in The Texas Rangers, which I recently reviewed here, Nolan is very good in portraying a villain.

   About those noir characteristics I mentioned earlier. Shadow and lighting are often utilized to convey meaning. When we first see Nolan’s character, he’s standing in a courtroom waiting to be sentenced. His face is haggard and dark, signifying his violent side. Later on, upon being freed from jail and now back in his familiar surroundings with Lucky by his side, his face appears significantly lighter in tone.

   Power’s character’s psychological descent is also conveyed through changes in lighting. When we first see him, he’s college student Bob Cain, not Johnny Apollo. He has a soft face and is resplendent in the sunshine, palling around with his college classmates and posing for a photograph shirtless. After transforming himself into Johnny Apollo, however, he soon gets a black eye in an altercation with one of Dwyer’s former associates.

   Worse still is Johnny Apollo’s appearance upon visiting his father in prison for the first time. We see his darkened face, almost angular like Dwyer’s through bars, foreshadowing what fate awaits him in the near future. In one of the film’s next-to-final, albeit very brief, scenes, set in a darkened prison cell, we see Johnny Apollo without a trace of that soft light in which we first saw cheerful Bob Cain.

   The film’s biggest flaw is in its slightly clumsy method of introducing its characters. The first two people we see in the movie are Bob “Pop” Cain (Arnold) and his lawyer (Atwill). For the next half hour or so, Atwill seems as though he’s going to be a significant figure in the film, but he soon disappears completely.

   The scene in which Dwyer (Nolan) is first introduced, however, is very brief and is immediately followed by a couple of quick scenes in which random, unimportant characters, such Pop Cain’s cellmate are introduced, never really to be seen or heard much from again.

   When we first see Brennan, he’s merely standing by Dwyer’s side at the latter’s sentencing. Although he makes a few facial expressions, he doesn’t have a speaking part in the film until later on. I found this an odd way to introduce a character that the plot will ultimately turn upon. That said, the film’s strengths greatly outweigh its weaknesses.

   In conclusion, Johnny Apollo is an eminently watchable and significantly above average crime film. Although the film does have some proto-noir characteristics and a seemingly doomed protagonist, it ends up having a light, happy, and somewhat pat ending.

   But the film does show the dark side of human nature. It also touches upon the question of fate and destiny. Look, in particular, for the black (or dark colored) cat crossing Bob Cain’s path right before he ascends the staircase to Brennan’s office for the very the first time. That tells you something.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


THE BIG STEAL. RKO Radio Pictures, 1949. Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, William Bendix, Patric Knowles, Ramon Novarro, Don Alvarado, John Qualen. Screenplay: Daniel Mainwaring (as Geoffrey Homes) & Gerald Drayson Adams, based on the story “The Road to Carmichael’s” by Richard Wormser (The Saturday Evening Post, 19 September 1942). Director: Don Siegel.

   The Big Steal is an action-packed crime film starring Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer, the duo best known for their work together in Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past. Although it’s not as nearly as artistic as the better-known Tourneur film, The Big Steal is very much a solid piece of filmmaking. It benefits from not only from its strong cast, but also by its excellent pacing.

   Directed by Don Siegel, whose great crime film, The Lineup, I reviewed here, The Big Steal defies easy categorization. It’s not so much a film noir as it is a hard-boiled crime film, replete with terse dialogue, witty and sarcastic banter between the two leads. Shifting allegiances also figure prominently. Plus, there’s a thrilling car chase sequence that predates Anthony Mann’s well-known car chase through a visually claustrophobic Manhattan in Side Street.

   There’s something of light comedic aspect to The Big Steal, making it a bit less hard-boiled and more of a good old-fashioned, south of the border caper. Did I mention there’s a shootout between Mitchum’s character and some Mexican hired thugs that’s more reminiscent of a Western than anything out of what’s typically thought of as film noir?

   The plot basics are as follows. Duke Halliday (Mitchum) arrives in Mexico in pursuit of Army payroll cash that he alleges was stolen by Jim Fiske (Patric Knowles). He teams up with Joan Graham (Greer), who was cheated out of a comparatively meager sum of cash by Fiske, with whom she was having some sort of romantic liaison back in the States.

   The two attempt to track down Fiske, all the while being pursued by the haplessly ineffectually U.S. Army Captain Vincent Blake (William Bendix). Adding to the cat-and-mouse aspect is a Mexican law enforcement officer by the name of Ortega (Ramon Novarro) who is eager to let Halliday and Graham lead him to Fiske. All the while, Ortega has time to practice his English and ogle pretty Mexican girls poolside. John Qualen rounds out the cast as Seton, the film’s quirky, art collecting arch-villain.

   With the notable exception of the final showdown, The Big Steal isn’t a particularly moody film. It’s not much of a psychological study, either. It’s simply a significantly above average late 1940s crime film with a coterie of colorful characters, all chasing one another up and down Mexican streets. It may not be one of Mitchum’s iconic roles, but he’s really quite good here.

   There’s one scene in which he sits backward in a chair, smirking at his rival. It’s a pretty much perfect moment in a film that overall works very well. As for Greer, she’s no femme fatale in this. She’s just a gal along for the ride. All told, it’s a pretty entertaining one.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


FOG OVER FRISCO. First National Pictures, 1934. Bette Davis, Donald Woods, Margaret Lindsay, Lyle Talbot, Hugh Herbert, Arthur Byron, Robert Barrat, Henry O’Neill, Irving Pichel, Douglass Dumbrille, Alan Hale. Based on the novel The Five Fragments by George Dyer. Director: William Dieterle.

   Sometimes a film starts off really well, with a promising plot, a stunning female lead, and an atmospheric San Francisco nightspot. There’s also a gangster, a goody two shoes stepsister, and a duped fiancé, all of whom vie for the deeply flawed protagonist’s attention. What’s not to like?

   But then all of a sudden, about thirty minutes into the movie, things just quickly fall apart, leaving the movie feeling utterly rudderless. That’s the best way to describe Fog Over Frisco.

   Based on a novel by George Dyer and directed by William Dieterle (The Life of Emile Zola), the movie stars Bette Davis as Arlene Bradford, a scheming socialite and femme fatale. She manipulates her fiancé, Spencer Carlton (Lyle Talbot), into a scheme involving a criminal lowlife and some stolen government securities. Her father, head of the brokerage firm where Spencer works, thinks Arlene’s rotten to the core. Her stepsister, Val (Margaret Lindsay), however, isn’t willing to give up on her.

   Davis is nearly perfect for the part of the scheming Arlene, portraying the doomed protagonist as a liar, schemer, and classic manipulator. You kind of start actually liking her, even though you know she’s up to no good whatsoever. Then she disappears from the film for a few minutes, leaving you wondering where she went and where the film’s headed.

   And then you get your answer. She’s been killed, leaving the film without its best character. In contrast to an extremely focused first half, the second half of Fog Over Frisco is one big muddled affair with stock footage of car chases, too many characters, and no Bette Davis. It’s fast moving, but it doesn’t go anywhere.

   Who could the murderer be? Her fiancé, her sleazy gangster friend, and even her on-the-side love interest are all possible suspects, but it’s difficult to care. Somewhere along the way, the stepsister Val gets kidnapped, an intrepid newsman gets involved with the case, and it turns out Arlene had a secret husband who used to live in Los Angeles. If it sounds far too complex for a film with a running time of sixty-eight minutes, it’s because it is.

   In conclusion, Fog Over Frisco starts off extremely promising, but ends feeling like just another convoluted and mediocre B-film mystery with some ridiculous plot devices thrown in to explain away a clumsy story. As far as the fog alluded to in the title, there’s a bit here and there, but really nothing to justify its usage beyond a marketing device.

   All told, it’s an average, if not below average, suspense film with little to recommend it beyond Davis’s great, albeit abbreviated, performance.

DANE CLARK CONFIDENTIAL, PART 2
by Curt Evans


WITHOUT HONOR. United Artists, 1949. Laraine Day, Dane Clark, Franchot Tone, Agnes Moorehead, Bruce Bennett. Re-released as Woman Accused. Screenplay: James Poe. Director: Irving Pichel.

   Without Honor was directed by Irving Pichel and written by James Poe, a distinguished writer for radio and film. (Though Poe wrote the screenplays for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Summer and Smoke, Lilies of the Field and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, he won his sole Oscar for Around the World in Eighty Days.)

   For genre lovers Poe also is especially notable as a radio scriptwriter for classic series like Suspense and Escape (perhaps his best known adaptation is the brilliant nail-biter “Three Skeleton Key,” starring Vincent Price).

   Without Honor followed the Alfred Hitchcock film Rope into theaters by one year, and the influence on the latter film on the former seems clear, with Without Honor playing as a feminized, suburbanized version of the classic Hitchcock film.

   Laraine Day stars as Jane Bandle, a San Fernando valley housewife whose dalliance with businessman Dennis Williams (Franchot Tone) has been uncovered by a private detective employed by her rat fink brother-in-law, Bill Bandle (Dane Clark), who is still angry that she once spurned his advances and has been eying his chance to exact revenge.

   Williams has come to the Bandle house to inform Jane that with a detective on their tails, it’s all over between them — he won’t divorce his wife as he had promised. A distraught Jane, who when Williams dropped in to lower the boom had been preparing shish kabob for her husband’s dinner (d’oh!), grabs a skewer and hysterically threatens to commit suicide on the spot. Williams grapples with her and ends up getting stabbed in the chest.

   After Williams collapses in the laundry room, a panic-stricken Jane shuts the door on him but finds that the worst is yet to come: her snake-in-the-grass brother-in-law has invited Williams’ wife, Katherine (Agnes Moorehead), to come over the Bandle bungalow to discuss a certain matter of marital infidelity. Oh, yes, and Jane’s husband, Fred (Bruce Bennett, aka former thirties film Tarzan Herman Brix) should be along any minute now too….

   This film has gotten its share of criticism over the years, but I enjoyed it. The performances are quite good, in my view. Tone is his customarily sophisticated self, but it’s Dane Clark who dominates the film, as a highly memorable etching in sleazeball venom. A rather censorious New York Times, which didn’t like the film, allowed nevertheless that “Mr. Clark does such a thoroughly good job in developing the revengeful brother into a full grown monster that one can almost forgive and commiserate with Laraine Day, despite her guilt of marital indiscretion.”

   Laraine Day mostly spends the film looking terrified, though she does this well. Agnes Moorehead lends an interesting performance as a not entirely unsympathetic Beverly Hills matron. Bruce Bennett is convincing as Day’s somewhat dim husband. Essentially a post-war kitchen sink women’s melodrammer, Without Honor nevertheless also offers genre fans a pleasing repast of crime and suspense.


NOTE:   This review first appeared in slightly different form on Curt’s own blog, The Passing Tramp. Check out Part One of this series on this blog here.

DANE CLARK CONFIDENTIAL, PART 1
by Curt Evans


BLACKOUT. Hammer Films, UK, 1954. Lippert Pictures, US, 1954. Originally released in the UK as Murder by Proxy. Dane Clark, Belinda Lee, Betty Ann Davies, Eleanor Summerfield, Andrew Osborn. Based on the novel Gold Coast Nocturne by Helen Nielsen. Director: Terence Fisher.

   Dane Clark (1912-1998) is one of those actors that you, if you are, as I am, in middle age, have almost assuredly seen on television earlier in your life, even if you don’t match the name with the face. I recall him playing an FBI agent in Season One of Angela Lansbury’s beloved mystery series, Murder She Wrote, the “Watson” in that episode to Lansbury’s Jessica Fletcher. I don’t know why I remember this character, but I suppose I have to chalk it up to Clark’s acting skills, having seen some of his other genre film work of late. He’s good!

   Dane Clark was known in the 1940s as the “B-list John Garfield,” but I don’t believe this appellation does him justice. (It’s a bit like when the great Ida Lupino is dismissed as the “poor man’s Bette Davis.”) Dane Clark was his own man. Both John Garfield (born Jacob Julius Garfinkle in 1913) and Dane Clark (born Bernard Zanville in 1912) were Jews from New York City, but Clark came of much more comfortable circumstances than Garfield, graduating from Cornell and getting a law degree before ending up in acting (after stints in boxing, baseball, construction, sales and sculptor’s modeling — he had found lawyers weren’t doing too well in the Depression either).

   In 1941 Clark married the artist and sculptor Margot Yoder (a distant relative of my family) and the next year appeared in several films (uncredited): The Pride of the Yankees (“Fraternity Boy”); Wake Island (“Sparks”); and, most notably, Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key (“Henry Sloss”).

   By the end of World War II Clark was getting bigger roles, including that of the Bohemian artist in the Bette Davis identical twins melodrama A Stolen Life (1946); the escaped convict who has a desperate romance with Ida Lupino in Deep Valley (1947); and, in the Oscar-nominated film Moonrise (1948), the tormented Danny Hawkins, who is in love with gorgeous Gail Russell and has, most inconveniently, killed her fiancee (played, very briefly, by Lloyd Brides). Today Moonrise pops up on lists of greatest noir films though regrettably it’s not available on DVD (you can see on it Amazon instant video, however).

   If you look around, you should be able to find on DVD some of Clark’s work as a lead actor in late 1940s and 1950s crime films (when he really came into his own as an actor), including Without Honor (1949), Backfire (1950), Highly Dangerous (1950; screenplay by Eric Ambler), Gunman in the Streets (1950, with Simone Signoret), Never Trust a Gambler (1951), The Gambler and the Lady (1952), Blackout (1954; Murder by Proxy in UK), Paid to Kill (1954; Five Days in UK), Port of Hell (1954), The Toughest Man Alive (1955) and The Man Is Armed (1956).

   I’ve recently seen several of the above films, the first being, for the purpose of this review, Blackout.

   Blackout, as I have discussed on my own blog, is an English adaptation of Helen Nielsen’s Chicago-set hard-boiled crime novel, Gold Coast Nocturne (1951). Although transferring the setting from Chicago to London is slightly awkward, to be sure, overall I was really rather impressed with this film. It is quite faithful to the novel, even using some of the dialogue.

   As the beleaguered hero, Casey Morrow, an American out to solve a murder he wakes up to discover he’s suspected of having committed, Dane Clark is excellent, as are the two lead women, Belinda Lee (sexy blonde heiress Phyllis Brunner) and Eleanor Summerfield (wisecracking artist Maggie Doone). A couple crucial supporting performances could have been stronger, but overall I would quite recommend this film.

       TO BE CONTINUED


Editorial Comment:   This review first appeared in slightly different form on Curt’s own blog, The Passing Tramp.

CRUEL GUN STORY. Nikkatsu, Japan, 1964. Originally released as Kenjû zankoku monogatari. Jô Shishido, Chieko Matsubara, Tamio Kawaji, Yûji Odaka, Minako Katsuki, Hiroshi Nihon’yanagi. Director: Takumi Furukawa.

   I’m not going to fake it. This is the first Japanese crime film I’ve seen in a good long while, and there’s no way I can possibly place it in any kind of context where it belongs. I don’t know the actors nor the director, nor what the intentions were of the people who were responsible for the making of the film — only the results, as I saw them.

   But on the basis of this first toe-in-the-water attempt on my part, I’m enthusiastic enough to try another, and perhaps even soon. I feel as though I’m on the verge of entering a very big field here, and I hope it doesn’t go to my head.

   Just released from prison, a small-time gangster named Togawa (Jô Shishido) discovers that he has a benefactor who negotiated his release, and expensively, and that he is expected to reciprocate. (It wasn’t that he was a gangster that sent him to prison, it was for the murder of the man who ran over his sister with a truck, causing her to lose both legs.)

   The job he’s supposed to do? Nothing more than to hold up an armored car, along with a easily supplied crew of assistants. The prize: millions of dollars yen being transported from a race track to a nearby bank.

   Togawa agrees. His sister needs an operation, he believes. And as they always do in heist films like this, things go wrong. And boy howdy, do they ever go wrong. The body count is as high as any movie I’ve seen in recent months, including lots and lots of American-made westerns.

   Although filmed in black-and-white, and often dazzlingly so, please do not think of this as a film noir. It’s only a heist film populated by lots of guns and gangsters, flawed by a plan which could never have worked in the first place, and done in by plain old greed, pure and simple.

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