Crime Films


  DETOUR TO DANGER. Planet Pictures, 1946. Britt Wood, John Day, Nancy Brinckman, Eddie Kane, Fred Kelsey, Si Jenks, Eddie Parker, Ashley Cowan, Bud Wolfe, Ken Terrell. Screenwriter: Alan James. Producer-directors: Harvey Parry & Richard Talmadge.

   I’m not going to kid you. This is one really bad movie, put together by a group of amateurs, I’d bet you think by looking at the credits, but you’d be wrong. Not about this being a bad movie, since it is, but the men behind it, from the producers-directors on down, all had lengthy careers in the movies. Almost all of them have long lists of movies they were involved with in some way or another, some of them up to 300 entries long, perhaps more, going back to the silent days.

   Mostly in bit roles, to be sure, or as stunt men. The leading man, John Day (John Daheim) and both directors did stunt work in loads of movies. They must have decided to put up the financing together to form Planet Pictures, which made only one other movie, Jeep Herders, also in 1946, and while they also probably went broke very quickly, they must have had a lot of fun doing so.

   The plot is nothing, and it’s poorly told. A gang of payroll robbers are forced to land their getaway plane near a summer resort spot somewhere near Big Bear Lake in southern California, where they mingle with the guests until two fishing buddies, Speedy (Britt Wood, and the funny one) and Steve (John Day, the husky clean-cut one) save the day.

   While the crime solving is inept, the romance is even worse. Things are livened up a little when a runaway excursion wagon filled with screaming girls is saved by the two heroes in their beat-up old jalopy, and a fight scene that lasts the final five minutes, much of it taking place in an another runaway truck careening its way down a narrow mountain road.

   What’s remarkable is that this movie was filmed in color. What’s even more remarkable that this movie still exists today, but only Alpha Video would believe it was worth releasing on DVD.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:         


TOUCH OF EVIL. Universal, 1958. Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Orson Welles, Joseph Calleia, Akim Tamiroff, Joanna Moore, Ray Collins, Dennis Weaver, Marlene Dietrich, Zsa Zsa Gabor. Screenplay: Orson Welles, based on the novel Badge of Evil, by Whit Masterson. Director: Orson Welles.

WHIT MASTERSON – Badge of Evil. Dodd Mead, hardcover, 1955. Reprinted as Touch of Evil, Bantam A1699, paperback, 1958; Carroll & Graf, paperback, 1992.

   In contrast to The Long Wait, reviewed here, Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, now available in a restored Director’s Cut, begins its cinematic fireworks with the first shot and never pauses for the smoke to clear. The tale of bigoted cops and a corrupt investigation unfolds in scene after scene of sheer cinematic brilliance –

   – and I have to say it gets a bit tiring after a while; like watching unending MTV videos or Previews of Coming Attractions that never stop. The eye tires after forty minutes or so (This eye did, anyway.) and I was glad for the relative quiet of a few reflective moments with Marlene Dietrich at her weary best as a Gypsy fortune-teller (“Your future’s all used up.”) just one of a number of cameo appearances that include Ray Collins and Joseph Cotton from Citizen Kane, and Mercedes McCambridge as a lesbian biker.

   On the other hand, Whit Masterson’s book that this was based on, Badge of Evil, is so bland as to be resolutely unreadable. The flat prose recounts little but a few cardboard characters moving slowly through an unremarkable plot to no discernible end. But perhaps I shouldn’t be too hard on this book, since I couldn’t finish it; maybe things really picked up after the first fifty-odd pages.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


  THE UNSTOPPABLE MAN. Argo Film Productions, UK, 1960. US release, 1961. Cameron Mitchell, Marius Goring (Inspector Hazelrigg), Harry H. Corbett, Lois Maxwell, Denis Gilmore, Humphrey Lestocq, Ann Sears. Based on the short story “Amateur in Violence,” by Michael Gilbert. Director: Terry Bishop.

   Sometimes criminals, despite all the possible planning, still pick the wrong target. That’s definitely the case in The Unstoppable Man, a taut British thriller. Directed by Terry Bishop, the movie stars Cameron Mitchell, a veteran actor best known for his work in American and Italian film as well on American television.

   Mitchell portrays James Kennedy, an American businessman in London whose business acumen seemingly is unparalleled. Kennedy is put to the test when his young son is kidnapped and held for ransom by a motley crew of thugs. Scotland Yard wants to take the lead, but Kennedy has his own plans. They include paying off the hostage takers in a greater amount than they demand, with the expectation that thieves aren’t the most honest of men and will gladly turn on each other for a few quid more.

   In The Unstoppable Man, that proves to be the case.

   One of the kidnapper gang ends up dead and helps lead Kennedy (and the cops) to the house where his son is being held. It’s there that the action finally, and somewhat belatedly, kicks in. Although he’s a man more used to the boardroom, Kennedy shows he can brawl as if he were in a barroom. There’s even a great scene – a pivotal one – where Kennedy utilizes a would-be flamethrower against a man involved in his son’s kidnapping.

   While there’s nothing in The Unstoppable Man that’s exceptional, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a good — make that a very good — crime film. Running at around seventy minutes, it’s economical both on plot and the viewer’s time. But what it lacks in originality, it makes up for in atmosphere and an early 1960s jazz-influenced soundtrack that works very well.

   For crime fans, it’s worth watching if you get the opportunity. For Mitchell fans (and I know that some are out there), it’s a must see.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


THE CAT BURGLAR. United Artists, 1961. Jack Hogan, June Kenney, John Baer, Gregg Palmer, Will White, Gene Roth, Bruno VeSota. Screenwriter: Leo Gordon. Director: William Witney.

   The Cat Burglar doesn’t have the most unique plot, the best actors, or the greatest cinematography. But what it has going for it is atmosphere. An atmosphere of low-rent criminals, sleaze, and the type of world-weariness and despair you’d expect to find on the margins of polite society. Plus there’s a pretty great fight sequence in a warehouse at the end of the movie.

   Directed by William Witney, the story follows the tragic life of third, make that fourth, rate Southern California cat burglar Jack Coley (Jack Hogan). Coley gets more than he bargains for when he breaks into a woman’s apartment and steals a briefcase that contains – you guessed it – documents and papers that a foreign spy ring is more than eager to get their hands (and fists) on. As I said, it’s not the most unique plot.

   Witney’s direction takes us to the low-rent side of Los Angeles: a pawnshop, the broken down apartment of a criminal low-life fixer, Coley’s ratty garden apartment, and a warehouse filled with cardboard boxes. Coley is a tragic figure, a man who knows he’s really not a very good person. In the course of the film, he gets chewed out by his landlady and beaten to a bloody pulp. He also redeems himself at the very end, demonstrating to himself that his life hasn’t been a complete waste.

   All told, it’s a fairly bleak, albeit disconcertingly entertaining, little production. Part of this is due to the Buddy Bregman jazz soundtrack. Granted, it’s a bit unusual to have an early 1960s jazz sound to a taut, low budget crime thriller. But The Cat Burglar is, in many ways, a quite unusual film.

   Yes, the story doesn’t really make all that much sense or hold up to scrutiny all that well. But in a way, it really doesn’t matter. The film is less about the story, than it is about taking the viewer a cinematic sojourn through the frighteningly sleazy shadows of sun-baked Los Angeles. And with Witney at the helm, The Cat Burglar does that pretty darn well.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:         


THE LONG WAIT. United Artists, 1954. Anthony Quinn, Charles Coburn, Gene Evans, Peggie Castle, Mary Ellen Kay, Shawn Smith, Dolores Donlon. Based on the book by Mickey Spillane. Director: Victor Saville.

   Victor Saville’s film of The Long Wait from the novel by Mickey Spillane, is an action-packed but mostly banal affair, bucked up somewhat by Anthony Quinn as a hard-boiled amnesiac who loses his fingerprints and memory in a fiery car crash that opens the thing.

   Wandering back to his home town, he finds himself wanted for an old murder by the local cops, and definitely unwanted by the local crooks, who find his presence somehow threatening to Organized Crime thereabouts. Indeed, the only ones with a friendly interest in Quinn are a half-dozen beautiful women who — because this is a Spillane story — fling themselves at him, knees akimbo, and — because this is a 50s movie — take him up to their apartments and dance with him.

   The story proceeds mostly by-the-numbers, competent but unremarkable, helped along by vigorous thesping from the likes of Charles Coburn, Gene Evans and Bruno VeSota as the sweatiest henchman in film noir.

   Anthony Quinn, who cut his acting teeth playing small-time hoods in Paramount “B” movies, brings a mean-spirited panache to the goings-on, and then…

   … and then for some reason there are five minutes in The Long Wait of pure, sadistic brilliance: A protracted execution, set in an abandoned warehouse, with harsh lights, minimal sets and camerawork that spreads like an expressionist dream across the screen as Gene Evans taunts and toys with his bound victims until….

   But that would be spoiling things. Suffice it to say that The Long Wait may be a more descriptive title than the producers intended, but it’s definitely worth the time.

FIRST YOU READ, THEN YOU WRITE
by Francis M. Nevins


   In ELLERY QUEEN: THE ART OF DETECTION I mentioned that the music for the first ten episodes of the ADVENTURES OF ELLERY QUEEN radio series, which debuted in 1939, was composed by the young Bernard Herrmann, and that three excerpts from his scores for the series could be heard on the Web, played on a synthesizer by David Ledsam.

   A few weeks ago I discovered that three complete Herrmann scores for the series were uploaded to the Web last summer, more than a year after my book came out. The episodes for which Herrmann’s music can now be heard are “The Fallen Angel,” “Napoleon’s Razor” and “The Impossible Crime,” which aired respectively on July 2, 9 and 16 of 1939.

   Each score runs from ten to twelve minutes and is played on a synthesizer by Kevin Dvorak. I’m sure the music would sound more like the Herrmann we know and love if it were played on the instruments for which he wrote it, but it’s a lot better than what we had before, which was nothing. Check all three out via the YouTube videos above.

***

   For us old-timers “Gone Girl” is the name of a Lew Archer short story by Ross Macdonald. Now it’s also the name of a first-rate crime-suspense movie, directed by noir specialist David Fincher and written by Gillian Flynn based on her 2012 best-seller of the same name.

   Most readers of this column are likely to have seen something about the picture, so I won’t bother to summarize the plot beyond saying that when beautiful Amy Elliott Dunne (Rosamund Pike) disappears from her upscale Missouri home amid signs of violence, the media go into a frenzy and all but crucify her husband Nick (Ben Affleck) as her murderer.

   There are several strong females in the film so perhaps I’m not revealing too much when I say that one of them struck me as the film noir woman to end all film noir women, and a manipulator of such epic proportions that she leaves Diedrich Van Horn and all the other Iago figures in the Ellery Queen novels choking on her dust.

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   A few weeks ago, with a bit of time to kill, I decided to tackle REDHEAD (Hurst & Blackett, 1934), the fourth of John Creasey’s 600-odd novels, the second of 28 that deal with Department Z — which in those days of Creasey’s youth was called Z Department — and the earliest I happen to own.

   According to the invaluable Hubin bibliography, this item was never published in the U.S., not even back in the early 1970s when Popular Library was putting out original paperback versions of countless Creaseys from the Thirties. My copy is an English softcover (Arrow pb #417, 1971) and indicates that the book was revised for republication, although the revisions must have been done with a very light hand indeed.

   Department Z has little to do with the operation, which pits a muscular young Brit named Martin “Windy” Storm and various of his cohorts against an American gangster known as Redhead who’s determined to bring his crime methods into England.

   If Creasey took this notion from Edgar Wallace’s 1932 novel WHEN THE GANGS CAME TO LONDON, he moved the center of gravity to the remote Sussex village of Ledsholm and the ancient castle that dominates the area. Much of the book’s second half is taken up by a long long action sequence in which our guys inside Ledsholm Grange are besieged by two separate gangs equipped with revolvers, automatics, machine guns, armored cars, explosives, the whole nine yards of weaponry.

   But since all the characters are stick figures, it’s very hard to keep the action straight or care who shoots or socks whom. Every other sentence ends with an exclamation point (“The greatest criminal enterprise in the history of England was reaching its climax!”), and the king toad makes Lord Voldemort look like a newborn kitten (“Through the hole in the wall he saw the demoniac eyes of Redhead, green, fiendish, glowing with the blood-lust that possessed him”).

   The writing is almost Avallonean in spots: “‘Be quiet!’ hissed Redhead.” And if Creasey preserved lines like “A bullet winged its message of death across the room, sending the dago staggering back”, I can’t help wondering what gems of political incorrectness he tossed out.

Fast forward to his books of only seven or eight years later, like the early Roger West novels (the first five of them collected in INSPECTOR WEST GOES TO WAR, 2011, with intro by me), and you see at a glance how radically Creasey’s writing skills improved over the Thirties.

***

   Or did it take that long? I also happen to have a copy of the next Department Z adventure, FIRST CAME A MURDER (Andrew Melrose, 1934; revised edition, Arrow pb #937, 1967). It has all the earmarks of a Thirties thriller but the writing is so much more restrained and stiff-upper-lippish that it’s hard to believe it came from the same pen as REDHEAD just a few months before.

   I don’t have copies of any Creaseys earlier than these but, judging from the quotations in William Vivian Butler’s THE DURABLE DESPERADOES (1973), both SEVEN TIMES SEVEN and THE DEATH MISER resemble FIRST CAME A MURDER in this respect. Of course, what I have is the revised version of the latter title, and perhaps Butler was quoting from the revised versions of Creasey’s earlier novels too.

   But in that case why does the revised version of REDHEAD sound so different? I can only speculate, and perhaps, in the words of so many Erle Stanley Gardner characters, I’m taking a button and sewing a vest on it. But it strikes me as significant that REDHEAD was originally published by Hurst & Blackett whereas the publisher of all the other early Creaseys was Andrew Melrose.

   Creasey once said that SEVEN TIMES SEVEN, the first novel he sold, was the tenth he’d written. Could REDHEAD have been one of the rejected nine? If there’s ever a comprehensive biography of that awesomely prolific author, perhaps we’ll learn the answer.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:         


THINGS TO DO IN DENVER WHEN YOU’RE DEAD. Miramax Films, 1995. Andy Garcia, Christopher Lloyd, William Forsythe, Bill Nunn, Treat Williams, Jack Warden, Steve Buscemi, Fairuza Balk, Gabrielle Anwar, Christopher Walken. Director: Gary Fleder.

   Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead is a good film, perhaps very good, if a bit too firmly mired in its own neo-noir ambiance. Andy Garcia plays a character on the fringe of the underworld pressured by mob boss James Woods into settling his debts by beating up a romantic rival of Woods’ younger brother.

   Andy recruits a team of other needy-seedy types to help out, including Treat Williams and Christopher Lloyd, and when the plan goes spectacularly awry, he’s given 48 hours to get out of town… while his henchmen get Steve Buscemi as the deliveryman for slow, painful death.

   Motivated by quirky loyalty, Garcia decides to spend his last 48 hours trying to save the inept buddies who screwed things up in the first place, bringing on a nice, pre-doomed search for some meaning in one’s own death: a perfect noir conundrum.

   Most reviewers found this too clever by half, but I thought it very deeply-felt, well-played and intelligent. Someone told Andy Garcia to “do Cary Grant,” and he makes a nice job of it. Even better is Treat Williams, whose brilliant, portrayal of a sub-normal Strong-arm should be held up as a textbook model to show every actor how to lose himself in a part, a powerful bit of acting which should have won him an Oscar.

   Of course, some elements of his character may be in questionable taste, but it’s still a dandy performance in a film good enough that I wish they hadn’t felt it necessary to underline Garcia’s dilemma by having someone watch DOA in the background.

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