Crime Films

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.

   A revolutionary heist film in many regards, and considered by many viewers as a classic. (It has an 8.0 rating on IMDb.) Not Kubrick’s first film, but while it’s one that while it didn’t make a lot of money at the box office, what it did do was to make film critics sit up and take notice of a new guy in town.

   The story is a old one by now, and maybe it was even then: The theft of $2,000,000 in cash from a race track is meticulously planned, and everything goes as smooth as silk when all of a sudden, it doesn’t. What’s distinctive about this film is that it’s shown in non-linear fashion, and I’m willing to wager that in 1956 audiences were not ready for stories told that way, even with some (studio required) voiceover narration to help them out.

   One problem I personally have with this film is that I do not believe for one second that Marie Windsor’s character would stay married to Elisha Cook for five minutes, much less than five years. I only wish she had had more screen time. What a femme fatale she was in almost every movie she made, and she was never more fatale than she is in this one.

   It is the ending that makes this movie pure noir. When he’s forced to improvise, Sterling Hayden, the mastermind of the plot that he sees disintegrating around him, he starts to make mistakes that he might not otherwise. All that effort — and all that money — [SPOILER ALERT] just blowing away in the wind.

THE BROTHERHOOD. Paramount Pictures, 1968. Kirk Douglas, Alex Cord, Irene Papas, Luther Adler, Susan Strasberg, Murray Hamilton, Eduardo Ciannelli. Music: Lalo Schifrin. Producer: Kirk Douglas. Director: Martin Ritt.

   I don’t know where this movie fits precisely into the chronology of Mafia-based crime films, but while there were certainly gangster movies before The Brotherhood was filmed, in terms of realism, none were quite like this one. It was also four years before The Godfather showed up and finally convinced everyone how they were supposed to be done.

   The story has it that when this one bombed so badly at the box office, it took quite a while to convince the people at Paramount to do another one, which of course was The Godfather.

   The reason I bring this up is that, well, first of all, the movie is actually quite good, but if you can’t place it properly in the evolution of Mafia movies, it can be viewed as a whole series of clichés. Kirk Douglas plays Frank Ginetta, an old-fashioned Mafia don based in New York City; Alex Cord is his (much) younger Vince, who’s gone to college, is home from Viet Nam, has just gotten married, and wants to join the “firm.” Big brother Frank is elated.

   But Vince and the other members of the council want to abandon the old ways and start finding new ways to invest their money and talents. This causes all kinds of problems, as you can imagine. Frank also finds out who provided the tip-off that happened many years ago that resulted in the massacre of over 40 members of the Mafia at the time, including Frank’s father.

   Frank does not take this very well, and his actions leave Vince squarely in the middle. Kirk Douglas takes this role and makes it entirely his own. He is an ebullient lover of his family, good food and happy times, and yet he casually and reminiscently tells someone about the first hit he ever made — when he was eighteen years old.

   Alex Cord, in contrast, and perhaps deliberately so, downplays his role so low that you barely know he’s in the film. He’s grim and dour while his brother’s innate nature is cheerful and charming. The ending is perhaps inevitable, but the getting there is not only absorbing, but a lot of fun to watch.

   If the movie didn’t do well financially, perhaps the movie audiences of the day were simply not ready for it. Another possibility, of course, is that I’m the only one in the world who has ever enjoyed it, but I’m fairly sure that that’s not so.


ROOM 43. British Lion, UK, 1958. Originally released in the UK as Passport to Shame. Odile Versois, Herbert Lom, Diana Dors, Eddie Constantine, Brenda de Banzie. Written by Patrick Alexander. Directed by Alvin Rakoff.

   The ultimate British “B” picture.

   Eddie Constantine stars (despite his 4th billing) as a London cab driver who gets in a financial pinch with a rather iffy loan company and is befriended by suave, wealthy Herbert Lom… who, it turns out, owns the Loan Company. Indebted to Lom, Eddie gladly agrees to a marriage of convenience to cute, virginal Odile Versois, who needs to marry a British subject so she can stay in the employ of a nice rich lady (Brenda de Banzie.)

   It’s all a tissue of lies, of course. Odile was framed for theft by her employer back in France, who is in league with de Banzie, who is in league with Herbert Lom, who runs one of those high-overhead white-slave outfits you see only in movies: the kind I mentioned in House of a Thousand Dolls. [Reviewed here. ]

   In this case, the expenses of enslaving Ms. Versois include bribing her erstwhile boss back in France, Ms de Banzie’s elegant apartment, the cost of getting a big truck to smash Eddie Constantine’s cab, then paying for the damages and tearing up the loan. There’s also the iffy loan company front, but maybe it pays for itself. Maybe it also pays for the small army of hired thugs Herbert Lom keeps at hand to ambush Eddie every ten minutes or so and beat him up when he gets qualms of conscience about the lovely Odile. As for the elaborate brothel, complete with secret passageways and a “respectable” façade where de Banzie holds court… well damned if I know where the money’s coming from.

   But of course this wasn’t meant to be believable. Gritty, sordid and tough, yes, but in no way believable. Sort of the cinematic equivalent of an old Gold Medal paperback, with our hero rescuing the heroine, who is promptly snatched away by the bad guys, then rescued again, then… well you get the idea. There’s a nifty car chase, a few fights, a tawdry drug-dream, roof-top cliffhanger, and a general donnybrook when the Cabbies of London (here acting as England’s version of the Texas Rangers) battle Herbert Lom’s goon squad.

   There’s also a brassy jazz score reminiscent of Elmer Bernstein’s classic Man with the Golden Arm, but perhaps the major point of interest here is Diana Dors, playing the proverbial hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold and decked out in lingerie right out of an Irving Klaw catalogue.

   Without Diana Dors, this would still have been engagingly trashy, but her appearance here lifts it into the class of sublimely sleazy. Not a great film by any standards — maybe not even a very good one — but fun all the way.


TENSION. MGM, 1949. Richard Basehart, Audrey Totter, Cyd Charisse, Barry Sullivan, Lloyd Gough, William Conrad. Written by Alan Rivkin and John Klorer. Directed by John Berry.

   A neat, twisty little noir that comes close to perfection.

   Willard Quimby (Richard Basehart) starts out as the bespectacled night manager of an all-night L.A. drugstore, back in the days when every drugstore had a soda fountain, a tube-tester, a cigar humidor and the latest out-of-town newspapers. And I have to say right at the start that photographer Harry Stradling and art director Leonid Vasian make this place come alive with a wealth of detail captured in sharp, deep-focus photography: the perfect real-life backdrop for the characters who live in it.

   We quickly learn that Willard’s wife Claire (Audrey Totter) seems to be trying for the title of Town Tramp in the Greater Los Angeles Metropolitan Area, blatantly cheating on him (with a surprising frankness for an MGM film of this period) and belittling him every chance she gets. Nonetheless, he loves her and reacts with dog-like devotion to every crumb of scorn she tosses at him.

   Well we’ve all had relationships like that, haven’t we? But when she moves in with showy Barney Dauger (Lloyd Gough), Warren is devastated. Distraught, he shows up at Barney’s beach house and gets in a scuffle with Barney, who knees him in the crotch (another unexpected moment for a 1949 MGM movie) and leaves him writhing humiliated in the sand in front of his unfaithful wife.

   Someone said something clever once about a little man scorned, but I forget what it was. In any event, it prompts Willard to murder, and he conceives a brilliant/half-baked scheme to get away with it; he gets contact lenses and assumes a secret identity: Paul Sothern, a traveling salesman staying weekends at a nice apartment complex and occasionally phoning threats to Daeger, making sure to leave his name. His thinking is that when he-as-Sothern murders Daeger, Sothern can simply disappear, leaving him safe as Warren Quimby.

   What he doesn’t count on is that his role as Paul Sothern will be much more enjoyable than his life as Quimby. He even meets a pretty neighbor (Cyd Charisse) at his new apartment complex, they feel drawn to each other, and for a while he considers just forgetting about the whole murder thing and making a good life with a nice girl who loves him. But then he remembers his humiliation and steels his resolve to throw away this chance for happiness and make a mess of things.

   Which is when the twists and turns come in and things get interesting.

   I won’t reveal anything from here on out, except to note that Tension proves to be a very apt title indeed. Barry Sullivan and William Conrad make an intriguing pair of homicide cops, especially as Sullivan seems more interested in putting the make on Audrey Totter than anything else. Writers Rivkin and Klorer provide a fair share of dramatic surprises, and director Berry maintains the atmosphere without sacrificing pace.

   I should also add that a few minutes after THE END flashes on the screen and you smile with satisfaction, you may find yourself saying, “Hey, wait a minute; why did….?” Or “How come they didn’t…?” I know I did. But on looking back a third time I had to admit it all makes for engrossing viewing even when logic takes a holiday.

CRIME, INC. PRC, 1945. Leo Carrillo, Tom Neal, Martha Tilton, Lionel Atwill, Grant Mitchell, Sheldon Leonard, Harry Shannon, Danny Morton, Virginia Vale. Director: Lew Landers.

   Some reviewers believe this to be one of bottom-rung studio PRC’s better efforts, and while this may be true, it doesn’t mean that it’s very good. The plot is perfunctory at best, and while viewers in 1945 may have enjoyed watching Martha Tilton sing, the songs do nothing to hold the rest of the story together, nothing more than an out-and-out crime film, some scenes of which are filmed in a nightclub.

   While Leo Carrillo gets top billing as a mid-level higher-up in a local crime syndicate, this is really Tom Neal’s movie, from beginning to end. He plays a brash young reporter (the only other kind in movies like this are the old embittered ones) who gets an edge on the police by befriending an upwardly mobile gangster (Danny Morton) who is making enemies of the gang currently in power.

   It may or may not be relevant that Martha Tilton plays the latter’s sister, so she gets to have more lines to say than in some of the other movies she was in. She acquits herself well, but then again so do most of the other players, most of them long-time veterans of movies like this. It’s only too bad they didn’t have better lines to say.


BAD BLOOD. Made for TV, UK, 1981. Southern Pictures / Kerridge Odeon, New Zealand, 1982. Jack Thompson, Carol Burns, Denis Lill, Donna Akersten, Martyn Sanderson, Kelly Johnson, Bruce Allpress. Based upon the book Manhunt: The Story of Stanley Graham, by H. A. Willis (Whitcoulls, 1979). Director: Mike Newell.

    Bad Blood opens with a telling scene that, in retrospect, tells the viewer a lot about how the story is going to unfold. In a small New Zealand farming community, the community men aim their rifles and fire at targets. The Second World War is on and the local, God-fearing, upstanding townsfolk are preparing to do their part (if called upon) to fight alongside Britain and against the Germans.

   Notably absent from the rather giddy group of would-be soldiers is Stan Graham, a local oddball who, along with his wife and kids, live on a small homestead in town. From the get go, the viewer learns two things: rifles are going to play significant roles in the narrative and that Graham is an outsider.

   Not surprisingly, guns and outsiders do not go well together, at least they don’t in director Mike Newell’s cinematic exploration of the life and times of real life New Zealand mass murderer Stan Graham (1900-1941).

   Portrayed with a combination of pathos and unbridled rage by Australian leading man Jack Thompson, Graham is an antisocial sort, a man consumed by bitterness whose devotion to his firearms leads to a catastrophic confrontation with local law enforcement. This triggers a large-scale manhunt in which Graham is finally captured. But not before killing more men who he blames for his failing farm.

   It’s a story that is once particular to a certain time and place in Depression-era western New Zealand and also easily transferable to any rural farming community that divides people into insiders and outsiders. Graham, as depicted in the film, is a paranoid man, so completely consumed by hate that it’s difficult to identify with him.

   And yet, we also get the sense that Graham’s financial failures and isolation are also due in part to a rather rigid community, one so caught up in the ways of propriety that they can’t stand the presence of the rude, uncouth Graham family in their presence. The real life Graham was surely a mass murderer and a villain, a man responsible for taking many lives, but the Graham portrayed on screen is a bit more nuanced. He’s something approaching an anti-hero, but not quite.

   He’s almost an anarchic figure whose refusal to conform leads to unspeakable tragedy for a close-knit community. Still at the end of the day, Graham is responsible for his own actions. After watching Bad Blood, it struck me just how subtle the director’s approach was. Without any sensationalism or over-moralizing, this New Zealand classic tells a “rural noir” story and lets the viewer wrestle with the uncomfortable implications.


THE GOLDEN SALAMANDER. General Film Distributors, UK, 1950. Eagle-Lion Classics, US, 1951. Trevor Howard, Anouk, Herbert Lom, Walter Rilla, Miles Malleson, Jacques Sernas, Wilfrid Hyde-White. Based on the book by Victor Canning. Director: Ronald Neame.

   Despite the occasionally languid pacing, The Golden Salamander is overall an enjoyably cerebral British thriller. Directed by Ronald Neame, the movie features Trevor Howard as David Redfern, an English archaeologist dispatched to Tunisia to recover Etruscan antiquities and bring them back to the United Kingdom. While in the exotic confines of North Africa, Redfern stumbles both into love with Anna, a local French girl (Anouk Ameee) and upon a criminal gun running enterprise.

   Much of the film deals with the ethical question of what is a man’s responsibility in the face of evil. Indeed, the titular golden salamander, albeit not a live one, has a prominent role in the movie. One of the antiquities Redfern (Howard) is meant to transport back to England is a statue of a salamander, and on the statue’s base is engraved a Greek aphorism about the necessity of not turning one’s eyes away from evil.

   This has an indelible impact on Redfern’s psyche. It propels him into a life-altering decision. He’s simply not going to pretend that he isn’t aware of the illicit gun running taking place around him. Rather, he’s going to confront it head on, danger be damned. This course of action will affect not just him, however. It will also impact the burgeoning romantic relationship between him and Anna.

   He’s also going to have to physically take on the cartel’s enforcer, a thuggish man by the name of Rankl (Herbert Lom). Corruption and murder envelop the couple as they make their way in and out of danger, ultimately forcing a showdown with the head of the crime syndicate whose identity may or may not surprise you.

   Although packaged as part of a Kino Classics British Noir box set, The Golden Salamander isn’t really what one would think typically think of as a film noir. There’s really no doomed protagonist and the setting is a small village in Tunisia and not the post-war neon-lit American urban landscape. It’s simply a darn good British crime film/thriller, one that’s by no means a classic, but is nevertheless worth your time.


APPOINTMENT WITH DANGER. Paramount Pictures, 1950. Alan Ladd, Phyllis Calvert, Paul Stewart, Jan Sterling, Jack Webb, Stacy Harris, Henry Morgan, George J. Lewis, David Wolfe. Screenplay by Richard Breen and Warren Duff. Directed by Lewis Allen.

  “You don’t have to build up to a murder, one good try and you’re there.”

  This exceptionally well done procedural noir set against the background of a post office investigation stars Alan Ladd as postal inspector Al Goddard, a tough no-nonsense investigator with a heart of lead, who is plunged into a dangerous undercover assignment when nun Sister Augustine (Phyllis Calvert) witnesses two killers, Joe Regas and George Soderquist (Jack Webb and Henry Morgan) dump the body of Post Office investigator Harry Gruber in an alley in La Porte, Indiana.

  The case expands as Goddard has to track down the nun and once he finds her, find the man she saw and spoke to in the dark alley, Soderquist. That’s complicated because Goddard begins to have human feeling about the nun and when Regas, who fears she saw him, tries to kill her, he starts to take things personally.

  Meanwhile, following the late Gruber’s lead, Ladd is led to Paul Ferrer (Stacy Harris), a Post Office truck driver, and a heist planned by Earl Boetticher (Paul Stewart) a hotel owner, Regas, and a team hoping to exploit a million dollar hole in Post Office security during a transfer of funds in Gary, Indiana. While still searching for Soderquist, who Regas has killed in the meantime, Ladd goes undercover hoping to nail the gang for Gruber’s murder or catch them in the act.

  Jan Sterling has a nice bit as Boetticher’s none too loyal girlfriend, Dodie: “You can put strings on good women or bad women, but you can’t put strings on lazy women.” She is at once slightly off key, a little dopey, and too smart for the men around her.

  Goddard (listening to music with her in her room): So that’s ‘Slow Train to Memphis?’

  Dodie (standing near him with a lazy sway: Hmm-mmm. You like it.”

  Goddard (taking her in his arms): It’s already given me a lift.

  As the deadline for the heist closes Goddard finds himself suddenly alone and one complication after another closing his door to get out alive including when Regas, obsessed that the nun saw him, kidnaps Sister Augustine.

  Regas: You look as if you lost your best friend.

  Goddard: I’m my best friend.

  Regas: That’s what I mean.

  This is the one, of course, where future Dragnet team Webb and Morgan play a pair of killers. Morgan’s fairly short-lived as a simple minded type who Webb kills with a pair of brass booties, all he has left of the son he hasn’t seen since infancy: “Why’d you do that Joe, I thought you liked me?” he asks just before Webb finishes him off.

  You may find yourself having to suppress and inappropriate laugh at one point when Webb impersonates a cop to lure Calvert into his car, but it isn’t the fault of the film. It doesn’t help he’s named Joe either.

  Well-acted all around, with Ladd, Stewart, Sterling, Webb, and in a short bit, Morgan outstanding, a sharp script by Richard Breen and Warren Duff, good location shooting and set pieces (the scene in the handball court is often copied and expanded on), and solid if straight forward direction by Lewis Allen, Appointment With Danger, is a tough smart noir film that lets Ladd humanize believably during the course of the film without getting too sticky or sentimental. There is more than enough suspense, and Sterling has a great final scene any film noir femme fatale would kill for, as an unsentimental survivor.

  It’s not top noir, but it is well above average and moves smoothly and smartly, with good dialogue to keep the thing lubricated.

STOP ME BEFORE I KILL! Falcon/Hammer Films, UK, 1960, as The Full Treatment. Columbia Pictures, US, 1961. Claude Dauphin, Diane Cilento, Ronald Lewis, Françoise Rosay. Screenplay: Val Guest and Ronald Scott Thorn, based on the latter’s novel The Full Treatment. Director: Val Guest.

   There is a quite a bit that may be of interest to regular readers of this blog in this film, recently released as one of a box set of non-horror Hammer films. The cinematography by Gilbert Taylor is clear and crisp, in stunning black-and-white, and the performances by all are as top notch as the script will allow them to be, especially that of leading lady Diane Cilento.

   She plays the wife of a race car driver (Alan Colby, played by Ronald Lewis) who was in an auto accident on an ordinary highway while the two of them were on their honeymoon together. He’s recovered but is having (apparently) trouble in bed with her. While in France, then back to England, they call on the services of a psychiatrist named Prade (Claude Dauphin).

   The problem is more than a mere sexual dysfunction, however, and here’s where that rather title of the film comes in. What Colby also has to fight is a compulsion to kill his wife, mostly by strangulation, either manually or with whatever wire in the kitchen is handy. They also live in an apartment with, for no other apparent reason, a set of old surgical tools.

   Commenters on IMDb, some of them, have complained about the length of the movie, and suggest that it should have been shorter in order to maintain the level of suspense the producer and director of the film intended it to have. They, the commenters, are right, but the US version, the one I’ve just watched, is already missing 15 minutes from its original two hour length in the UK.

   And what’s worse, one key scene is missing, one referred to later as the shower scene, in which (apparently) the newly married couple try to make love, and can’t. The next scene, also crucial to the movie, takes place at a dinner party being held by Prade, where Colby takes serious offense at several of Prade’s jabbing and jesting remarks.

   Strangely, though, a scene in which Diane Cilento’s character is seen swimming in the nude is left intact, but filmed discreetly at a distance so as not to bother (?) the censors.

   But the major problem is that, even by cutting the film (or script) down to size, there is no real suspense. Everything is well foreshadowed in advance (is that redundant?), and the viewer’s only obligation is to fit all the pieces together as they occur into the ending that is already well established ahead of time.


TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. MGM/United Artists, 1985. William Petersen, Willem Dafoe, John Pankow, Debra Feuer, John Turturro, Darlanne Fluegel, Dean Stockwell. Screenplay by William Friedkin, based on the novel by Gerald Petievich. Director: William Friedkin.

   By the time To Live and Die in L.A. ended, I had lost track of the number of times characters had double-crossed one another in this neo-noir police procedural. Directed by William Friedkin, this is a visually captivating, synth-pop driven journey in Los Angeles’s back alleys and its concomitant back room dealing. From warehouses to freeways, from Beverly Hills to San Pedro, the movie presents an off kilter portrait of two Secret Service Agents pushed to the limits in their quest to take down an infamous counterfeiter.

   When Agent Richard Chance (William Petersen) learns that notorious counterfeiter Rick Masters (Willem Dafoe) is behind his partner’s murder, he decides that he’s quite literally willing to do whatever it takes to take Masters down. That means cheating, stealing, and killing. Whatever it takes.

   Soon enough, Chance has fellow Secret Service Agent Jon Vukovich (John Pankow) by his side, bending and breaking all the rules in the book. The two agents devise a scheme by which they will steal money from an illicit diamond dealer and utilize the cash to conduct their own off the book sting operation against Masters. What happens next is right out of the noir playbook. Not only does their plan go awry, it goes awry in the worst possible way. This leads Chance and Vukovich down a deadly path leading to an ultimate showdown with Masters and his henchman.

   While the plot will keep you guessing, the film isn’t necessarily a plot-driven work. Indeed, the movie is as much a visual tour of the seedy underbelly of LA as it is a crime story, with scenes and sequences amplified by soundtrack composed by the 1980s pop band Wang Chung. The opening sequence in which the President’s motorcade pulls into the Beverly Hilton, for instance, is well served by the title song, lending the movie a dramatic sense of place from the get go.

   Like the cars in the motorcade, the film is a journey into a fantastically noir vision of a counterfeiting mastermind and the men who ultimately bring him down. Look for the incredible chase sequence, one that rivals anything you’ve seen in Bullitt (1968) or The French Connection (1971). It’s a thrilling sequence in a remarkably effective and gritty crime film.

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