Crime Films


TRAINING DAY. Warner Brothers, 2001. Denzel Washington, Ethan Hawke, Scott Glenn, Tom Berenger. Director: Antoine Fuqua.

   A brief warning, if I may, especially to those of you who have not seen the movie and think you might. In my comments that follow, there will be aspects of the film that may be revealed before you’d like to know about them. This is one of those films that if you know too much before it begins, it will spoil everything for you.

   Training Day, the film for which Denzel Washington won an Academy Award for Best Actor, works on two different levels. On the surface, it’s a gritty crime film about two cops. One is a veteran African-American detective, Alonzo (Washington) from the mean streets of South Central Los Angeles. The other, Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke) a fresh-faced White rookie from the suburban San Fernando Valley who is not prepared for what will face him on his first day — his training day — working in the narcotics division.

   As the movie begins, the viewer goes along with Hoyt as he rides along with the charmingly crude Alonzo as they cruise the mean streets of Los Angeles, encountering rapists, thugs, and drug dealers. Alonzo does his best to tell his green apprentice that unless he’s willing to be a wolf, he’s going to be eaten alive by the criminal element plaguing the city.

   That’s one level of the film and it’s not a particularly bad police film. There’s plenty of action, and Washington shows he’s a top American film talent. For an actor who had previously played rather cerebral types or at least heroes, he really does seem to lose himself in the role. No surprise then that he won an Oscar.

   But there’s a whole other level to Training Day and that’s one that, from what I can tell, seems to have gone little noticed among critics. And that would be the story unfolding from the point of view of the film’s protagonist, Jake Hoyt.

   In many ways, the movie isn’t about Alonzo at all. It’s about Jake’s perception of what is happening — or not happening — all around him. For most of the film, Jake thinks he’s in the company of hothead at best, a corrupt cop at worst. But as things progress, he learns that he has perceived the situation incorrectly all the time. True, Alonzo is a hothead and corrupt, but he’s also been working on a scheme involving Jake from the very first moment that the two men meet in a diner.

   Much of the film features scenes in which the two men burst into various apartments and houses. Alonzo knows what to expect inside; Jake does not. For most of the movie, we experience this disorientation from Jake’s perspective. What waits inside these homes? Where is Alonzo taking him? Are the people that Alonzo is shaking down criminals or just innocent people caught up in a web of corruption? Everything seems to be happening so fast that Jake can hardly gain a sense of where he is and what is happening.

   Typical of the film noir genre, the movie positions Jake as an object, rather than a subject. He’s seemingly at the whims of a world gone mad, caught up in a continual spiral downward. That is until a coincidence — also a noir trait — ends up saving his life and allows him to regain his footing.

   Also key to the plot is the fact that very early on Alonzo forces Jake to smoke marijuana, telling him that if he wants to be a narc, he has to be familiar with drugs. Turns out that it isn’t marijuana at all, but the far deadly and more disorienting PCP. Something else that not only changes Jake’s literal perception of urban Los Angeles, but becomes central to the wildly devious plan Alonzo has in mind.

   After putting up with Alonzo’s increasingly crazed behavior for a one bruiser of a day and discovering how Alonzo has set him up as a patsy for his plans, Hoyt finally sets upon a course of action that will ultimately lead to his would-be mentor’s final downfall.


THE AMAZING MR. CALLAGHAN. French, 1955. Originally released as À toi de jouer Callaghan!. Also released in the US by Atlantis Films as Your Turn to Play, Callaghan. Tony Wright, Lisianne Rei, Colette Ripert, Robert Burnier, Robert Berni, Paul Cambo. Written and directed by Willie Rozier. based on the novel Sorry You’ve Been Troubled by Peter Cheyney.

   The success of Meet Mr. Callaghan and the hit theme from that film, plus the success of Peter Cheyney’s novels in the famed Serie Noire series of paperbacks in France was enough to inspire a series of films based on his work. Since it was Slim Callaghan who first made his way to the screen in England, so he appears here in the guise of Tony Wright, replete with the theme from the British film, outfitted with French lyrics and whistled off and on by the star.

   There is little about the blonde muscular Wright to suggest the slender character with dark messy hair and shabby suits from the Cheyney novels, and the adaptation of Sorry You’ve Been Troubled moves the action to the Riviera in 1955, where Slim is arriving to aid an English Colonel whose note for gambling losses is held by a none-too- honest casino.

   With help from his pal Windy Nicholls (Robert Burnier), here an older man than Slim unlike the books where he is a young Canadian, Slim sets him up as an American who needs to be skinned by a crooked Vicomte (Robert Berni) in with the boss and club owner (Paul Cambo). Unfortunately first thing out of the box he is recognized and has to fight for his life out of the villa housing the private club.

   From there on the action is fast and furious, as Slim seduces one beautiful girl involved in the ring after another, manages several underwater scenes to show off Wright’s physique and swimming skills, and plays the bad guys for suckers until the big showdown, a well done car-chase and a minor surprise reveal of the man behind it all. It’s lucky for Slim that he gets along with the French police much better than he does Scotland Yard.

   All of this is played for comedy for the most part, right down to Wright and Rei singing a duet in his sports car before the last clench, a trope that carried over into Eddie Constantine’s Lemmy Caution films.

   Wright played Slim in one earlier film in that same year, A Whiskey for Callaghan (based on It Couldn’t Matter Less), and once more in 1963. In 1957 Eddie Constantine made at least one Slim Callaghan film before taking on the role of suave wise cracking FBI undercover agent Lemme Caution.

   The Callaghan films are hard to find, but this one is available in French on YouTube and included below. You might take a look for yourself, it’s pretty self-explanatory, and there is some fun to be had, though Wright lacks the smirk and style — as well as the singing voice — of Constantine.


MYSTERY SHIP. Columbia Pictures, 1941. Paul Kelly, Lola Lane, Larry Parks, Trevor Bardette, Cy Kendall, Roger Imhof, Byron Foulger, Dwight Frye. Director: Lew Landers.

   Mystery Ship is a movie about two federal agents, Allan Harper (Paul Kelly) and Tommy Baker (Larry Parks) tasked with a secret mission of escorting a ship filled with criminals and political agitators back to Europe. It’s a strange little film. And I don’t mean that in the avant-garde or experimental sense. It’s strangeness lies in the fact that it is a bizarre amalgam of several film genres: the crime film, the spy film, the screwball comedy, and the silent film, at least in terms of how the fight sequences are directed.

   Directed by B-movie king Lew Landers, the movie tries to blend action with suspense and suspense with romantic comedy in which Harper’s fiancée, Patricia Marshall (Lola Lane) manages to smuggle herself about the ship. Overall, the attempt is a failure not so much of direction as it is of imagination.

   This could have been a gritty action film set on the high seas or it could have been a screwball comedy featuring a motley crew of criminals and political subversives. Instead, it is really neither. It remains a lightly entertaining, if completely forgettable movie that is neither particularly good nor particularly awful. Film fans might appreciate the unmistakable Cy Kendall as one of the thugs.


CRACK HOUSE. Cannon Films, 1989. Jim Brown, Anthony Geary, Richard Roundtree, Cher Butler, Angel Tompkins, Gregg Thomsen. Director: Michael Fischa.

   This one isn’t for the faint of heart. Although the story takes place in Los Angeles, there’s little sunlight – real or metaphorical – in this surprisingly gripping exploitation film about rival gangs and the urban crack epidemic that gripped the nation in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The mood is somber, the performances better than one might expect, and the atmosphere is bleak. But make no mistake. Crack House is an exploitation film par excellence. It truly exploits the public’s dual fascination with how the other half lives and fears about the crack-related urban violence spreading out to suburban America.

   The plot is an essentially a Romeo and Juliet inspired love story set against the backdrop of an increasingly drug infested neighborhood. Rick (Gregg Thomsen), a Hispanic high school student who has recently quit a gang, is in love with Melissa (Cher Butler), one of the few – if only – white girls in the neighborhood. Their trouble really begins when Rick ends up in jail, having taken part in the very gangland violence he swore he had given up.

   That leaves Melissa at the mercy of local street toughs and dealers. Things go from bad to worse for her as she ups her social cocaine habit to crack addiction.

   Her spiral downward goes from bad to worse. She learns that one of her high school teachers (Anthony Geary) is involved in the crack trade. He is also a total sleaze and expects sexual favors from her.

   But the heart of the action in this movie revolves around two blaxploitation giants. Richard Roundtree portrays Lieutenant Johnson, a LAPD cop determined to break the backs of the crack dealers infesting his city. His nemesis is the aptly named Steadman (Jim Brown), a cruel brute SOB who makes Melissa a virtual captive in his crack house.

   If it weren’t for the presence of these two men who starred in many 1970s urban crime dramas, there’d honestly be no reason to watch Crack House. But with them in it, the movie actually does have something going for it. It is not fine cinema and it doesn’t have much artistic merit, but it hit all the buttons in terms of exploiting the public’s dual curiosity and revulsion when it came to the crack epidemic.

BORN TO KILL. RKO Radio Pictures, 1947. Claire Trevor, Lawrence Tierney, Walter Slezak, Phillip Terry, Audrey Long, Elisha Cook Jr., Isabel Jewell, Esther Howard. Screenplay: Eve Greene & Richard Macaulay, based on the novel Deadlier Than the Male, by James Gunn. Director: Robert Wise.

   Do you know what? If you were to put Lawrence Tierney into a tuxedo about to marry a wealthy socialite of the caliber of Georgia Staples (Audrey Long), he’d still look like Lawrence Tierney. One of the premises of this story is that bad guys like Sam Wilde (a very appropriate last name) can be irresistible to women, no matter how much money and common sense they are supposed to have.

   Another premise is that women can be as cold-blooded and filled with ice in their hearts as men can. The title of the film could also apply just as well to Georgia’s sister Helen (Claire Trevor), except she never kills anyone. But Sam does. When a girl he is going with in Reno (Isabel Jewell) decides to make him a little jealous by going out with another guy (Tony Barrett), the two of them end up dead.

   But Helen, accidentally stumbling over their bodies, doesn’t turn a hair. She calmly evaluates the situation, decides she doesn’t need to become involved, and calls for a ticket on a train out of town. Although just divorced, she has a wealthy suitor waiting for her back in San Francisco. She has met Sam in a casino, however, and now again on the train, and if sparks ever really fly in this movie, it is then.

   It is quite an opening, and considering that this movie was made in 1947, I am sure it was quite unique at the time. Unfortunately, and it is here that I may be going heretical on you, but the middle of the film falls to the depths of an almost frothy soap opera. (I did say almost.)

   Only the presence of a scoundrel of a private eye (most excellently played by Walter Slezak) hired by the dead girl’s landlady (Esther Howard), having followed Helen and Sam to San Francisco and snooping around, is there to remind us what a hardboiled crime film it is that we have been watching all along. (Plus of course Lawrence Tierney’s glowering presence in every scene he’s in.)

   This is good film, in my opinion, but not a great one. I think that all of the characters in this film are over the top, some more than others. Personally I stopped believing in it when Claire Trevor walks over the dead bodies without the batting of an eyelash, but I didn’t mind one iota, I’ve decided, in happily going along for the ride.


THE GOOD DIE YOUNG. Romulus Films, UK, 1954; United Artists, US, 1955. Laurence Harvey, Gloria Grahame, Richard Basehart, Joan Collins, John Ireland, Stanley Baker, Margaret Leighton and Robert Morley. Screenplay by Vernon Harris and Lewis Gilbert, from a novel by Richard Macaulay. Directed by Lewis Gilbert.

   A bit too much fat on this one, but when it gets lean & mean, it’s just about perfect.

   Richard Basehart, Stanley Baker and John Ireland star as three men in crisis, each for different reasons: Basehart and Ireland are going through domestic problems, and Baker, who grievously injured his hand in a boxing match, is out of work. What it comes down to is that they all need money.

   Laurence Harvey is having domestic problems too, but his are of a different stripe; his rich wife (Margaret Leighton, who married Harvey in real life the next year) is tired of paying his bills while he fools around with other women, and she insists they must make a fresh start in Kenya. So if he wants to stay in London living the life he thinks he deserves, he’d better get rich quick.

   Harvey is at his slimy best in this one, projecting love and goodwill when absolutely necessary, but with a sneer never far from his lips. The perfect sociopath, and so well played that when the notion of committing armed robbery comes up, it seems perfectly natural for him. About an hour or so into the film, he convinces the others that everyone’s problems will be solved and no harm done, and the caper is underway.

   And a good thing too, because that first hour wasn’t much. Stanley Baker’s back story is pretty involving, and Laurence Harvey has a pleasingly acidic encounter with his father (Robert Morley) but the rest is just Richard Basehart trying to get his wife (Joan Collins) out from under her mother’s domination, and John Ireland kvetching at his unfaithful spouse (Gloria Grahame.) I nearly shut the damnthing off….

   …but I’m glad I didn’t because the caper finally gets going, and it’s simply splendid, all fog-bound streets, twisting alleys, noisy train yards, and Laurence Harvey cheerfully shooting down cops, bystanders and his own partners in crime with casual aplomb. It’s handled with a sure feel for pace and tempo by director Gilbert, who did some of the Bond films, and it’s captured with moody fatalism by photographer Jack Asher, who would impart a distinctive look to Hammer’s horror films a few years later. Also, we get that classic feature of the noir film: the mortally wounded protagonist desperately walking toward freedom as he dies.

   There’s just one rub: This film was based on a book by Richard Macaulay, but I haven’t been able to find it offered for sale anywhere or even reviewed anyplace. Has anyone ever seen it?


UNDERTOW. Universal International, 1949. Scott Brady, John Russell, Dorothy Hart, Peggy Dow, Bruce Bennett. Director: William Castle

   Truthfully, I didn’t know what to expect from Undertow, but having just watched this lesser-known crime film I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed it and would recommend it for those who haven’t yet had the occasion to see it. Directed by William Castle, who is better known these days for his work in the schlock horror genre, Undertow is very much in line with the late 1940s “film noir” aesthetic. Set primarily in the urban jungle of Chicago, the movie has gambling, a femme fatale, betrayal, coincidence, a protagonist framed for a crime he didn’t commit, a renegade cop working to clear an innocent man’s name. You get the picture.

   The plot. Without giving too much away, here are the basics: Tony Reagan (Scott Brady) is an ex-GI who used to work for Big Jim, a Chicago mob boss. But Reagan now wants to go straight and work in the legitimate real estate business in Nevada.

   Before he can do that, though, he needs to settle matters with Big Jim and, more importantly, with his fiancée who just happens to be Big Jim’s niece. Before he can do so, Big Jim ends up murdered, and Tony, who is framed for reasons that become clearer over time, is the police department’s primary suspect.

   Although it’s not a classic, Undertow perfectly captures the same sense of post-war urban paranoia and social isolation as do other similar films noir and programmers released in the late 1940s. There’s that creeping sense that, although Tony Reagan has made some bad life choices, what has happened to him could happen to any one of us. This Kafkaesque dread is best exemplified by a stunningly effective scene in which Reagan darts around a concrete and steel Chicago “L” station in the desperate hope that he can outrun the cops who are hot on his trail.


THE MECHANIC. United Artists, 1972. Charles Bronson, Jan-Michael Vincent, Keenan Wynn, Jill Ireland, Linda Ridgeway, Frank DeKova. Director: Michael Winner.

   For the first sixteen minutes, there is no dialogue. None. Just a sequence in which we see Charles Bronson or, more accurately, a character portrayed by him, plan and execute an assassination of an older man living in a rundown Los Angeles hotel room. But there’s music accompanying the action, a score composed by Jerry Fielding. Unfortunately, the music overwhelms everything else, making it more obtrusive than artistic.

   In many ways, this initial sequence is indicative of the film as a whole. It tries to be artistic and deep, but fails nearly on every level. And the overwhelming, out of place soundtrack doesn’t help matters, either.

   Now, some may see this criticism as overly harsh. After all, what’s not to like about the pairing of Charles Bronson and a youthful Jan-Michael Vincent as a skilled hitman and his apprentice? Both are good actors for the genre, and there’s actually some personal chemistry between the two (an earlier version of the script apparently hinted at a forbidden romance between these two men who live outside societal norms).

   But it’s not the acting, nor the script per se that makes this a rather dreary affair. It’s the fact that The Mechanic tries so hard, so very hard, to say something profound about what it must be like to be a hitman that it verges into self-parody. Bronson’s character, the titular mechanic, is a brooding, philosophical sort who lives alone in a giant Hollywood Hills home and who has a penchant for martial arts and seemingly little connections with other people, aside from a girlfriend portrayed by Bronson’s wife Jill Ireland. By trying too hard to make a statement, The Mechanic ends up saying very little.


HE WALKED BY NIGHT. Eagle-Lion Films, 1948. Richard Basehart, Scott Brady, Roy Roberts, Whit Bissell, James Cardwell, Jack Webb. Director: Alfred L. Werker, with Anthony Mann (uncredited).

   He Walked by Night was one of those movies that I knew existed and had always intended to watch. But for some reason, I never seemed to get around to doing so. Until now, that is. The verdict is mixed. On the one hand, there’s some excellent staging and cinematography — particularly in the last 20 minutes or so — in this true crime-inspired police procedural/film noir.

   But the story, as far as it goes, is a particularly thin one, with far less character development than one would hope for in a movie so intently focused on the ways in which a criminal eluded the police for so long.

   Richard Basehart portrays Roy Martin (alias Roy Morgan), a loner with a penchant for electronics who commits a crime spree in the greater Los Angeles area in the late 1940s.

   Among his crimes is the cold-blooded murder of a LA police officer. It’s up to the LAPD to hunt him down and bring him to justice. Leading the effort is Sgt. Marty Brennan (Scott Brady) who gets some much-needed technical assistance from a police forensics expert (Jack Webb).

   You wouldn’t know it from watching the movie, which gives next to no explanation for the crimes depicted on screen, but the backstory to the criminal portrayed by Basehart in He Walked by Night helps shed some light as to his possible motivations in carrying out his reign of burglary, robbery, and murder.

   The character of Roy Martin was based on the real life criminal exploits of Erwin “Machine Gun” Walker, a former Glendale, California, police department employee who engaged in a crime spree in LA County in 1945-46. Walker, a Cal Tech drop out who witnessed Japanese atrocities during his service in World War II, was likely traumatized by his combat experiences and the subsequent guilt he felt for surviving an attack that killed many of his fellow soldiers.

   Because of this lack of character development, the film ends up being a middling police procedural that, with a little bit of tweaking, could have been a far more formidable crime film. Still, there are enough gritty moments, particularly during the final sequence in which the LAPD hunts down Roy Martin in tunnels under Los Angeles, which should please film noir fans.


  THE KILLING. United Artists, 1956. Sterling Hayden, Coleen Gray, Vince Edwards, Jay C. Flippen, Ted DeCorsia, Marie Windsor, Elisha Cook, Joe Sawyer. Screenplay: Stanley Kubrick, with additional dialogue by Jim Thompson; based on the novel Clean Break by Lionel White. Director: Stanley Kubrick.

   Much has been written about The Killing, one of Stanley Kubrick’s earliest films and the template for the crime film subgenre known as the “heist film.” In many ways, the story at the heart of this crime film — a ragtag group of men planning the perfect heist of a betting track — is less important than the way in which the story is told.

   From the voiceover narration, which lends the movie a semi-documentary feel, to the reverse chronology in which certain key events in the unfolding story are depicted, Kubrick’s movie is revolutionary in the manner in which it frequently shifts the perspective from which the viewer engages with what is happening on screen.

   At first look, the movie’s protagonist/anti-hero is Sterling Hayden’s character, Johnny Clay. He’s a career criminal, once imprisoned at Alcatraz. Most significantly, he’s the brains of the whole operation to steal from a horse racetrack — an institution that is inherently suspect as it gains its money from the desperate and the downtrodden hoping to turn their money into even larger gains. (A heist film where the target was an honest, family owned restaurant, for instance, wouldn’t generate much interest, I suspect.)

   Back to Johnny Clay, both the brawn and the brains. It was his idea to gather a group of men, including an old friend (Jay C. Flippen), a corrupt policeman (Ted De Corsia) and a chess playing wrestler (Kola Kwariani) as well as an off-kilter sharpshooter (a perfectly cast Timothy Carey) to pull off the job. He’s also got men on the inside: bartender Mike O’Reilly (Joe Sawyer) and George Peatty (Elisha Cook, Jr.), a betting room teller.

   I mentioned George Peatty last for a reason, for in many respects, it is Elisha Cook’s portrayal of a downtrodden cuckold that carries the film’s story from its desperate but oddly optimistic beginning to its violently tragic, albeit humorous, climax. It’s Johnny Clay’s story that makes The Killing a crime film. It’s George Peatty’s that makes the movie a film noir.

   Some five to ten minutes into the movie (I don’t remember exactly), The Killing shifts its visual focus from Hayden’s character and the preparations for the crime to the marital squabbles between George Peatty and his witty, albeit sarcastic and emotionally abusive wife Sherry (Marie Windsor). The scene in which we see the two Peattys bicker, with Sherry hurling cruel verbal jabs at her sad sack of a husband lingers longer than one might expect.

   It’s just the two of them in an apartment bedroom, with Sherry complaining that she married George thinking that one day he’d hit it rich. He’s truly in love with her, but she has next to no respect for him — a point further highlighted when it’s revealed that she’s cheating on him with a total sleaze named Val Cannon (Vince Edwards) whom she freely tells that George is part of a scheme to rob the racetrack. George may be thinking of obtaining illicit money to keep Sherry, but Sherry is thinking of taking George’s money to keep her illicit lover.

   If this all sounds like a standard double cross scenario, it’s because it is. And it’s this melodramatic aspect to the film, when combined with Johnny Clay’s quest for the perfect heist that makes The Killing not just a crime film, but also a film noir with tragic qualities.

   What makes this Kubrick film a particularly durable work is that the behavior on display here is merely instantly recognizable aspects of human behavior enhanced for dramatic effect. Johnny is a career criminal and a cynic, and while Sterling Hayden’s character is cool and full of swagger, he’s not all that interesting.

   The same cannot be said about George (Cook in a standout role, one in which his eyes reveal the depth of his soul). He’s a weak man who wants so badly to please his wife that he’s willing to commit a felony to do so and it’s his story — from his pathetic entreaties to his wife at the very beginning to his willingness (Spoiler Alert) to cut her down in cold blood — that makes The Killing a fascinating look into human greed and urban despair.

Next Page »