Crime Films

KILLSHOT. Weinstein Co., 2008. Mickey Rourke, Thomas Jane, Diane Lane, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Rosario Dawson. Based on the novel by Elmore Leonard. Director: John Madden.

   I won’t go into the problems this movie had in being made. If you’re interested, you can read about them on the Internet. I will point out that the movie was “finished” in January 2006, according to IMDb, but not released until 2008, and then it was essentially Direct-to-DVD, with only a tiny theatrical opening as a trial run, which must have flopped.

   I also won’t (or can’t) compare it to Elmore Leonard’s novel, because, well, I haven’t read it. I think he’s a good writer, but his plots — mostly about hinky things going wrong when lowlife criminals think they’re masterminds — generally don’t interest me, and the characters, including innocent bystanders (more or less) who get caught up in the plots, even less. Usually. There are exceptions.

   As far as I’ve been able to tell, this movie follows the book all the way through. Except for maybe the ending. I haven’t read any reviews of the book that describe the ending, which in the movie is rather lame, as happy endings in crime films usually are.

   Mickey Rourke plays the main character, a stoic but quite competent hit man for hire named Armand Degas, nicknamed ‘Blackbird’ because of his Native American background and heritage. What makes him a success at what he does is that he always makes sure there are no witnesses. In Killshot, though, he hooks up with a psychopathic looney named Richie Nix (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who is totally off-the-wall and prone to both braggadocio and catastrophic error in close to equal proportion.

   In any case, here they mess up on one of their ventures and are seen by a married couple (Diane Lane and Thomas Jane), who, even though they are on the verge of divorcing, are forced to go into a witness protection as a married couple.

   There is a lot of plot involved in this movie, and even so, it leaves out the part about the federal marshal who stalks Mrs Colson once they’re ensconced in their new town and identities. Maybe this little sidebar could have been worked in. The movie is only 90 minutes long, plus or minus two or three. I think it flows fairly nicely, though, but with a story such as this, you really would think (as I think back about it) that there’d be a lot more suspense in it than there is.

   One surprise comes before the end, however, and I obviously can’t tell you about it, but one does wonder why the particular event I’m talking about took as long to happen as it did.

   I think it’s better than the ending, too, but following the rule that all reviewers must follow, I can’t tell you about that, either. See the little bit about it I said above, however.

CRY DANGER. RKO Radio Pictures, 1951. Dick Powell, Rhonda Fleming, Richard Erdman, William Conrad, Regis Toomey, Jean Porter, Joan Banks, Jay Adler. Director: Robert Parrish.

   This was the next to last of the black-and-white crime movies that Dick Powell made, and it’s the last if you don’t count The Tall Target, released later the same year. I wouldn’t call Cry Danger a noir film, unless you define a noir film by style rather than content. It’s a crime film, but with the lighting and semi-sleazy setting of a film noir, with characters to match, but without the sense of inevitable doom that some viewers feel that a true noir requires.

   But why quibble? It’s a crime movie that’s a lot of fun to watch, and if you do, be sure to obtain a copy of print recently restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archive. The picture quality is sharp and clear, showing us once again that the people who made black-and-white movies back before color took over completely knew exactly what they were doing.

   Dick Powell plays Rocky Mulloy, a guy who’s just been released from prison after five years. A witness has surprisingly shown up and given him an alibi for the time of the robbery and murder.

   Not as lucky is his friend Danny Morgan, who’s still in jail for the same crime. Richard Erdman plays Delong, the fellow who supposedly cleared Rocky, but in reality has given himself an opportunity to obtain a share of the missing loot, just as he’d planned.

   While Rocky, who really was innocent, tries to clear his pal still in jail, the two of them hole up in a rundown trailer court in an even more rundown trailer. Danny’s wife (Rhonda Fleming) lives in the same court, as does Darlene (Jean Porter), a blonde bimbo who also has the nimble fingers of a skilled pickpocket. She and Delong get along just fine, sort of, in a serio-humorous kind of way.

   I should also mention Castro, the bookie who Rocky is sure planned the robbery. He’s played in super sleazy fashion by William Conrad, who like Raymond Burr made an early career for himself playing characters just like this.

   The dialogue between Rocky and Delong is sharp and witty, and very nearly worth the price of admission in itself. Add the two ladies to the mix, along with Castro and a cop (Regis Toomey) who doesn’t believe a word of Rocky’s alibi, and you have a story that can easily suck you in without letting go.

   Of the players, I think Rhonda Fleming is the least believable She’s simply too good-looking to be the wife of anyone in a movie like this. As for Dick Powell, he certainly knew what he was doing when he made a such a sharp turnaround in his career, and started making movies like this.


Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

SAN QUENTIN. Warner Brothers, 1937. Pat O’Brien , Humphrey Bogart, Ann Sheridan, Barton MacLane, Joseph Sawyer, Veda Ann Borg. Director: Lloyd Bacon.

   For fans of Warner Brothers’ crime films and Depression-era realism, San Quentin is a well-paced crime melodrama with enough solid characterization to keep viewers fully engaged with the story for the duration. Indeed, watching the film, a short programmer filmed on location at the California prison, is like hanging out with old friends. Not only is Humphrey Bogart front and center, you’ve also got many of the studio’s finest by your side: Pat O’Brien, Ann Sheridan, Barton MacLane, and Joe Sawyer.

   Bogart portrays Red Kennedy, a low-level crook at odds with the world. It seems the only good thing he’s got going on in his life is his devoted sister, May (Sheridan), a singer in a San Francisco nightclub. Soon after the film begins, Kennedy is nabbed by the law and ends up in San Quentin. Little does Kennedy know that his sister and the prison’s new chief guard, Captain Stephen Jameson (O’Brien) are beginning a romantic relationship. When he does find out – from the mouth of thuggish fellow inmate, Sailor Boy Hansen (Sawyer) – he’s enraged and is more prepared to do something about it.

   Although San Quentin is by no means a classic or comparable to Bogart’s better known movies, it nevertheless succeeds as a film due to its script and fine coterie of actors. As was the case in many Warner movies from the era, San Quentin is a crime film with a conscience. Kennedy isn’t really such a bad guy so much as a victim of time and circumstance. Even so, the lesson is plain enough for all to see. As much as we might sympathize with Red Kennedy, ultimately his decisions to pursue a life of crime will usher in his tragic downfall in a world that’s ultimately indifferent to his fate.

JOHNNY ROCCO. Allied Artists, 1958. Richard Eyer, Stephen McNally, Coleen Gray, Russ Conway, Leslie Bradley, James Flavin. Screenplay: James O’Hanlon, based on a story by Richard Carlson. Director: Paul Landres.

   The answer to the first question you are probably asking is, No, it’s not the same Johnny Rocco. Far from it. Just about as far opposite as you can get. Richard Eyer, who was 13 when this movie was made, plays the title role, and he looks even younger.

   He plays the son of a small-time hoodlum in this film, a young boy who adores his single-parent father, and the affection is mutual, although the kid does get tough love in return. The reason Tony Rocco takes Johnny on his latest job for the mob is so he and his partner in crime can get back across the Mexican border with fewer questions asked.

   What they didn’t count on a motorcycle cop trying to pull them over for speeding, and what Tony the father really didn’t count on is that his fellow mobster would pull a stunt that gets the cop killed. With Johnny in the car, as a terrified witness.

   If this is a noir film, you might classify it under “inspirational noir.” Johnny’s teacher (Coleen Gray) knows something is wrong — he is withdrawn in class and can speak only by stuttering — and she is ready to help him if he will let her. And while on the run to sort things out, Johnny finds a brief sanctuary in a Catholic church, where the priest finds a place for him in the boys’ choir.

   Richard Eyer’s career as a child lasted less than ten more years, but in playing a young wholesome lad in trouble in this movie, he is outstanding. The terror he has after what happened, the fear in his eyes, his worry about his Dad, all 100% believable. Even his stuttering sounds natural. An actor three or four times his age could not have done it better.

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:          

THE GREEN MAN. British Lion Film Corp., UK, 1956. Alistair Sim, George Cole, Terry Thomas, Jill Adams, Raymond Huntley. Screenplay: Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder,based on their play “Meet A Body.” Directed by Robert Day and Basil Deardon (the latter uncredited).

   You may have Peter Sellers’ undisputed genius, you may have the brilliant Alec Guinness, you may bask in the clipped mustachio twirling urbanity of Terry Thomas, you may teeter on the edge of the brilliant pomposity and erudition of Robert Morley,and you may giggle or guffaw at Norman Wisdom, Eric Sykes, Benny Hill, or the British comic actor of your choice. I’ll take Alistair Sim.

   Sim is best known for Scrooge (1951), the classic version of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, a seasonal favorite, and for the crossdressing genius of the film version of Ronald Searles’ cartoon madness The Bells of St. Trinian’s. Americans may know him best as Jane Wyman’s father in Alfred Hitchcock’s Stage Fright or as Inspector Cockerill in Green for Danger, and he was brilliant to the end, his last film being the cult classic The Ruling Class But he did two of the best comedic crime films ever made in that same time frame, Hue and Cry, where he plays a crime novelist who becomes involved with a group of crime fighting street urchins, and the film reviewed here, The Green Man.

   Here Sim is Hawkins, who from childhood has a way with explosives, and like any sane person he follows his interest into his mature years and makes a career of his talents — blowing people up. Here the odd dictator, there the miscreant husband — anyone and everyone he is paid to dispose of with his not inconsiderable talents.

   Ah! School days. The happiest days of one’s life. I was a carefree innocent lad in those far gone times. Only one thing clouded my youthful spirits: my headmaster. Really, all I did was to put an electric charge in his fountain pen and an explosive charge in his inkpot. I honestly only intended to humiliate him. However, that got rid of him, and also disposed of any doubts I may have had about my true vocation.

   His latest victim is a pompous government minister (Raymond Huntley), who is planning a jaunt to the coast for a bit of hanky-panky at an inn called the Green Man, where Hawkins hopes to retire him from his position explosively if only everyone and his dog didn’t show up on his doorstep, including the politician while he is trying to do the deed.

   Sim is a master of the slow burn, the sly grin, the quietly murderous and murderously funny frustration, the softly spoken razor sharp phrase, and the look that could kill and in this one he is up to his ears in young lovers (one of whom, comic actor George Cole, has an improvised scene with Sim where he tries to call the police, and Sim tries to stop him, that is worth watching for alone) and innocent bystanders conspiring to keep him from his appointed murderous due.

   Sly is the word most often applied to Sim’s performances, and never truer than in this black comedy about a professional assassin having the bad day to end all bad days as he tries to ply his trade. Few actors ever possessed a face that expressed as much as Sim’s, or as brilliantly. He has many of the gifts of a great silent comedian, but those are in addition to his soft funeral director’s voice and flawless delivery with the skill of a surgeon’s scalpel. Find The Green Man and Hue and Cry, they really are the best of British comedy, and the best of Alistair Sim, of which there is nothing better.

Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:         

THE MAN IN THE BACK SEAT. Independent Artists, UK, 1961. Derren Nesbitt, Keith Faulkner, Carol White. Written by Malcolm Hulke and Eric Paice. Directed by Vernon Sewell.

   I really wish I hadn’t read about this in The Encyclopedia of Horror Films because it’s a movie that deserves to be seen fresh, and the Encyclopedia makes no bones about giving away endings. So my recommendation here is that you stop reading this review right now, find a copy of Man in the Back Seat and settle down for a nice hour or so in 60s noir-land.

   Yeah, I figured you’d ignore that sage advice, so I’ll go ahead and tell you that the story revolves around a couple of young spivs (British slang for flashy small-time criminals) who let themselves in for a night-long odyssey of greed and desperation when they waylay a bookie and hit him a bit too hard.

   What follows could be played for comedy, as everything that could possibly go wrong proceeds to do so. For starters, the victim keeps his money-satchel handcuffed his wrist, and the boys have to cart his inert form around in the car—hence the title of the piece. But the writing and directing keep it tense and downbeat, due mainly to the time they take with the characters. Tony (Derren Nesbitt) is clearly the dominant member of the duo, but he’s just as obviously stupid and immature; just the sort you want in charge.

   Frank (Keith Faulkner) is basically decent but easily bossed around, and as things deteriorate you can see him mentally melting down under the pressure, and not helped at all by encounters with his wife (Carol White) who loves him for his good nature but is quickly disenchanted by his weakness as he and Tony throw one lie after another at her.

   This could easily have ended up as a rather standard late-noir crime film, but it doesn’t and I refuse to spoil it by telling you why. Just bear in mind that the writers here worked on television’s The Avengers in its mid-60s hey-day, and director Vernon Sewell specialized in creepy ghost flicks (including writing and directing three versions of House of Mystery) and expect the unexpected, as they say.

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