Crime Films


UNDERWORLD BEAUTY. Nikkatsu, Japan, 1958. Original title: Ankokugai no bijo. Michitarô Mizushima, Mari Shiraki, Shinsuke Ashida, Tôru Abe, Hideaki Nitani. Director: Seijun Suzuki.

   Sweaty and more than a little bit sleazy, Underworld Beauty borrows liberally from the American gangster genre, film noir, and the juvenile delinquent film, all the while creating something exciting and new, if not completely coherent.

   Directed by Seijun Suzuki, this compellingly hip Japanese crime film exudes raw energy and sparkles with punctuations of gunfire. It eventually reveals itself to be an offbeat love story with the dark fatalistic humor of Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956), the sly direction of Sam Fuller, and the aesthetic of a 1950s hot rod exploitation film about rebellious teens and their jazz-infused dance parties.

   Filmed in black and white Cinemascope, Underworld Beauty opens with former convict Miyamoto (Michitarô Mizushima) making his way through the dank Tokyo sewers. He’s down there in the muck to retrieve stolen diamonds that he hid away in a wall below the urban streets prior to his incarceration.

   The film follows Miyamoto, clad in a black jacket and fedora, as he makes a deal with a yazuka crime boss, tries to make amends with his former partner, and begins a love-hate relationship with the latter’s wild sister Akiko Mihara (Mari Shiraki). Through a twist of circumstance, Miyamoto’s former partner ends up swallowing the diamonds, only to die from falling from a roof.

   Akiko’s boyfriend, who works as a designer of mannequins, cuts open the newly deceased and steals the diamonds out of the body. In a whirlwind of cinematic frenzy, the story moves ahead with various deceptions, a double-cross, a kidnapping, and a final dramatic shootout in a steamy furnace room. The acting may be decidedly mediocre, but the energy is infectious.


THE HYPNOTIC EYE. Allied Artists, 1960. Jacques Bergerac, Merry Anders, Marcia Henderson, Allison Hayes, Joe Patridge, Guy Prescott, Jimmy Lydon… and Lawrence Lipton, “King of the Beatniks.” Written by Gitta & William Read Woodfield. Directed by George Blair.

   An agreeably hokey B-movie aimed at the degenerate kiddie trade. There’s a disturbing edge of misogyny, as raw and discomfiting as anything in Fuller or Franju, but the sheer naïve showmanship carries it through—mostly.

   Let’s get the nastiness out of the way first. Eye opens with a woman mutilating herself, and there’s another similar scene later on. This should be enough to disqualify it from any meaningful discussion, but I recall vividly that this movie was marketed to kids my age, and we lapped it up with the unconcern of children.

   Moving right along then, it’s perfectly obvious to everyone but the cops (Joe Patrick and Guy Prescott, who does a rather effective job as a Police Psychiatrist) that the women are under the influence of some diabolical mind control, engineered by creepy stage hypnotist Jacques Bergerac, with some unsettling input from his lovely assistant, the ubiquitous Allison Hayes, who was literally a towering presence in the trashy movies of her day.

   The police do their usual plodding best, assisted at first by Marcia Henderson, until she too falls under Bergerac’s spell, leading to a steamy sequence (literally) where Ms Hayes tries to get her under a shower of scalding water.

   There are some major continuity gaps here. The detective watching Marcia from the curb outside her house finally goes in and confronts Hayes, but in a lengthy scene in the house, he doesn’t recognize her, despite having seen her on stage. Then later, when the cops go back to check on her, Marcia is living in an apartment!

   It all ends in an effective and highly theatrical set-to on stage in a packed theatre, but along the way there are a couple of amusing detours: First a nightclub scene where Lawrence Lipton, “King of the Beatniks” recites Beat Poetry, including the immortal line, “I saw ‘Charley’s Aunt’ in the original uncut version.”

   Then towards the end there’s a moment where the movie breaks the fourth wall, as Bergerac looks straight into the camera and hypnotizes his audience, blurring the line between film and real life in much the same manner as William Castle did in The Tingler.

   This sequence was quite a hoot in theaters, but its effect seems somewhat diminished on TV. I don’t remember much about it, but I awoke the next morning convinced that Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life.


CROSSTRAP. Screen Entertainment Company/ Unifilms, UK, 1962. Laurence Payne, Bill Nagy Jill Adams, Zena Marshall, Gary Cockerell. Screenplay by Philip Wrestler, based on the novel The Last Seven Hours by John Newton Chance. Directed by Robert Hartford-Davis.

   This no-budget British suspense film has its moments and is based on a novel by popular British writer John Newton Chance (aka SF author John Lymington, among others).

   Geoff and Sally (Greg Cockerll and Jill Adams) are a mystery writer and his bride off on a holiday to a remote little spot so they can have time alone and he can finish his book, but no sooner have they arrived than they find a body, and a gangster (Bill Nagy) who won’t let them go.

   Soon the boss, Duke (Laurence Payne) arrives with French girlfriend Reva (Zena Marshall) and two others in tow. They’ve just pulled a jewel heist in London and killed a policeman, and meanwhile they are awaiting the plane due to land at a nearby airfield and fly them out to France.

   There are complications though, like the dead man, and who killed him, and did he betray Duke and the gang? Was it a rival gang that Duke fears has followed them? Then there is Duke himself, a psycho if there ever was one, who has eyes for Sally and would like to see Geoff dead to clear the way.

   None of which makes Reva happy, and since she is key to their getaway in France that matters.

   Pretty soon the rival gang arrives and a siege begins, Duke tries to use Geoff as a goat to get him killed, but only succeeds in getting him captured, and as the time nears for the plane the gang can’t afford to stay penned down and must make a break for it.

   It builds to a fairly exciting finish, with Duke getting his just reward from Reva and Geoff and Sally escaping by the skin of their teeth.

   In a forgiving mood Crosstrap kills a bit over an hour pretty well. Payne, himself a successful mystery writer and television’s Sexton Blake, is the main attraction acting-wise and seems to be having fun as Duke. Adams and Marshall are nice to look at and neither embarrasses themselves in their performances. Nagy, you may not know by name, but will recognize if you have seen many Brit films of the period, the same for most of the rest of the cast.

   Of Cockerll, let us be generous and say he is adequate.

   Currently this is available on Amazon Video. I can only say I’ve spent worse hours.

NEW ORLEANS UNCENSORED. Columbia Pictures, 1955. Arthur Franz, Beverly Garland, Helene Stanton, Michael Ansara, Stacy Harris, Edwin Stafford Nelson, Mike Mazurki. Director: William Castle.

   From the poster, you’d think that this movie would take place in and along Bourbon Street, with lots of gin joints, hot jazz, and girls in tight blouses and loose morals. Alas, it is not to be. This is a behind the scenes look at crime along the waterfront — smuggling, kickbacks, and petty pilfering, and as such, could have be told bout any large-sized port city in the US.

   When Arthur Franz comes to town, he’s an innocent whose only goal is to fix up an old tub and go into the shipping business on the Mississippi for himself. In trying to make a go of it, his path crosses that of the big crime boss in person (Michael Ansara) and two women, one good (Helene Stanton), the other not so good (Beverly Garland).

   I will not tell you which one he ends up with at the end of the movie, but I think perhaps you can guess as well I did. I cannot tell you more, as there is otherwise very little suspense in this film. Franz is OK as an actor, but as a leading man, he has very little charisma in this film. Another weakness in the casting is that Beverly Garland and Helene Stanton (The Big Combo) look too much alike, and while it was no chore watching either of them in action, it always took me a few seconds to distinguish which one was who, and even then I wasn’t always sure.


LONG LOST FATHER. RKO, 1934.John Barrymore, Helen Chandler, Donald Cook, Alan Mowbray and E. E. Clive. Screenplay by Dwight Taylor from the novel by G. B. Stern. Produced by Merion C. Cooper. Directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack.

   A deft mix of comedy and drama from the folks who brought us King Kong, this looks to have slipped in under the wire before the Hays Code gripped Hollywood. In fact, there’s a shower scene that mocks the permissiveness of pre-code Hollywood… but I’m getting off the subject before I even start.

   We start with John Barrymore running a fashionable London night spot, and solely responsible for its success as he charms the patrons (and the viewer) with his easy manner and Dwight Taylor’s quips.

   Dwight Taylor, by the way, was a writer of considerable range, with films like Top Hat, Conflict and Pickup on South Street to his credit, and he provides Long Lost Father with crime and comedy in equal measure. We’re not long into the film before an ex-con from Barrymore’s past (E.E. Clive, pleasingly roguish here) shows up looking for a job, and right on his heels a Scotland Yard Detective (Claude King) looking into a con game they once worked in Australia.

   And the twists keep turning. Barrymore has an unpleasant encounter with the daughter (Helen Chandler) he abandoned years before, finding her predictably hostile and possessed of the same wild streak that set him wandering way back when. And right after that, his obtuse employer (the redoubtable Alan Mowbray, essaying a cockney accent for a change, and doing quite well by it) insists that Ms. Chandler’s song-and-dance act is just what they need to liven things up at the club.

   So we get John Barrymore roped into a relationship with a daughter who reminds him too much of himself, and trying not to get roped by Scotland Yard, all this conveyed with a mix of wit and drama perfectly played by the principals.

   Those who only know Helen Chandler from Dracula (1931) are in for a pleasant surprise here. Ms. Chandler was a star on Broadway, as was Barrymore, and she plays off him perfectly, with the spirit and comic timing of Carol Lombard or Jean Arthur.

   Getting back to the plot, it’s wrapped up very neatly as Ms. Chandler gets in serious trouble and Barrymore and Clive must resort to their old scam and still try to keep out of jail. Watching them work it is like watching a very fine dancer pick up the tempo in a complex series of steps that could take your breath away. Catch this if you can.


8 MILLION WAYS TO DIE. TriStar Pictures, 1986. Jeff Bridges (Matt Scudder), Rosanna Arquette, Alexandra Paul, Randy Brooks, Andy Garcia. Based on the novel Eight Million Ways to Die, by Lawrence Block (Arbor House, 1982), and in part on A Stab in the Dark (Arbor House, 1982). Director: Hal Ashby.

   Hal Ashby’s 8 Million Ways to Die seems like it was doomed from the start. As Ashby was struggling to make a Hollywood comeback, he was faced with producers who apparently didn’t appreciate the type of film he was trying to make and didn’t allow him to work on editing his own film. (Ashby had previously been a stellar editor before becoming an auteur director in the 1970s.) Worse still, the production, which adapts Lawrence Block’s eponymous novel to film, shifts the story’s locale from New York to Los Angeles and turns Scudder, Block’s fictional ex-cop turned unlicensed PI, into a quasi-Southern California surfer dude who says “man” a lot.

   That’s not to say that the film doesn’t have some great moments. There’s a real genuine sense of location, an aesthetic sensibility that permeates the film: the seedier side of Los Angeles in the mid-1980s. It’s a land of palm trees and sunshine, of high priced call girls and cocaine and alcohol. And that’s where Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy Matt Scudder (Jeff Bridges) lives. He’s an alcoholic who has lost it all, his wife, his house, and his kid. As he struggles to rebuild his shattered life, he becomes caught up in what he thinks is a dispute between a call girl and her pimp. Little does he know that he’s somehow stumbled upon a giant cocaine operation run by the eccentric and brutal Angel Moldonado (Andy Garcia) who struts around like a walk on villain in a Miami Vice episode.

   But as a coherent whole, 8 Million Ways to Die doesn’t work in the way it was likely intended. It tries to be a crime drama and a romance and, most importantly, a study of a man trying to rebuild his shattered life in the midst of chaos. Maybe it was the producers, maybe it was the three screenwriters, maybe it was even Ashby who was rumored to have been a cocaine addict himself in the 1980s.

   Whatever the case, this crime film never ends up feeling particular cinematic. It’s more akin to a moderately watchable made-for-cable TV movie than a feature release. Perhaps that’s why it fared so poorly at the box office.


DESTINY. Universal, 1944. Gloria Jean, Alan Curtis, Frank Craven, Frank Fenton, and Minna Gomebell, who doesn’t have a big part — I just like writing “Minna Gombell.” Written by Ernest Pascal and Roy Chanslor. Directed by Julien Duvivier and Reginald Le Borg.

   A true oddity of a B-movie with an oft-told back story which I will try to summarize briefly:

   In 1943, Julien Duvivier made Flesh and Fantasy, an all-star three-story portmanteau for Universal Studios, with Barbara Stanwyck, Charles Boyer, Edward. G. Robinson, Bob Cummings and Betty Field. There was originally supposed to be a fourth part with John Garfield and Gloria Jean, but Garfield balked at being loaned out to Universal and was replaced by contract player Alan Curtis. Then, when the movie was judged to be too long, this part was cut out altogether.

   With the wisdom and penury of their breed, the studio heads at Universal decided to salvage the footage and build a new movie around it. Roy William Neill was assigned to produce, with Reginald Le Borg (of The Mummy’s Ghost and Sins of JezebeL infamy) directing, and Roy Chanslor (Johnny Guitar) tasked with creating a story to fit the stuff already filmed.

   Well they did it, and it ain’t awful. In fact, considering the strictures of the project, it turned out surprisingly well. Some might even give it that overworked accolade “noir.” But before I get to that, there’s another thread to the story:

   “Destiny” was an all-purpose title the execs at Universal slapped on any work in progress while they searched for a more marketable moniker. At various times, The Wolf Man, Son of Dracula, and Ma & Pa Kettle in the Ozarks were all temporarily titled Destiny, and I suspect in this case they just didn’t bother to change it.

   Okay, moving on to the story itself, it starts with our hero (Alan Curtis)on the run from the Law, then flashes back to how he got drawn into a robbery, duped by a night club chantoosie and slammed into prison for three years …. only to get innocently involved in another robbery after his release. Which would all be very noir indeed, if done by anybody but Le Borg, who films it in his usual fast and anonymous style.

   Anyway, Curtis eventually wanders into a rural community called Paradise Valley, where the Duvivier footage comes in as he meets one of those blind girls unique to the movies (Gloria Jean) who lives with her aging father (Frank Craven) and has a strange affinity with nature: wild animals flock to her side and even the flowers seem to nod as she passes.

   All this should be way too cutesy, but Duvivier manages not to wallow in it by focusing on Curtis, whose character has changed markedly from the Le Borg footage. We’re supposed to think he’s been embittered by his experiences, but actually he seems something of a rotter, hoping to force his company on poor Gloria, even if it means killing her dad.

   Which leads us into the high point of the film, and one of the best few minutes of a great director: a tour de force sequence of Curtis chasing Gloria Jean through a storm-lashed forest. As they run, branches, vines and underbrush magically part to let her through, then snap back to pummel and ensnare the pursuer … and it’s convincing! A real nightmare scenario, with fluid camera, striking compositions and everything else that makes movies memorable.

   There’s more to Destiny after this, but why go into it? I’d only have to use words like facile, clichéd, contrived and crap and I hate to apply terms like that to a film that like I say, ain’t all that bad. And if you can take it for what it is, you can enjoy this Destiny.

BLACKMAIL. MGM, 1939. Edward G. Robinson, Ruth Hussey, Gene Lockhart, Bobs Watson, Guinn Williams. Director: H. C. Potter.

   In a typically strong but not entirely successful performance from him, Edward G. Robinson plays John Ingram, a successful oil-field firefighter — the best there is for miles around, as a matter of fact — but even with a wife and young son now, he has a secret from his past that he does not want known, and that is where the title comes in. Someone from his previous life (a perniciously loathsome Gene Lockhart) knows that secret, that several years before he had been unjustly convicted of robbery but had managed to escape from the chain gang he was on.

   And as Lockhart manages to work it, not only does Robinson end up back on the chain gang, but he (Lockhart) gets control of the oil well his victim has been hoping would come in. The only thing on Robinson’s mind — well, two — are escape and revenge.

   This was, of course, MGM’s belated answer to I Was A Fugitive from A Chain Gang, which was released by Warner Brothers in 1932. It tries to be as gritty as he earlier film, but it just doesn’t make it. As good as Edward G. Robinson was in almost everything he did, watching his not so lean wiry body sloshing through the swamp surrounding the prison farm he escapes from a second time is a cinematic image that will stay with me for a long time, and not for the right reason.


A GENTLEMAN AFTER DARK. United Artists, 1942. Brian Donlevy, Miriam Hopkins, Preston Foster, Harold Huber, Philip Reed, Gloria Holden, Douglas Dumbrille. Screenplay by Patterson McNutt & George Bruce, based on the story “A Whiff of Heliotrope” by Richard Washburn Child. Directed by Edward L. Marin.

   An old-fashioned melodrama of the crook-with-a-heart-of-gold type, served like a Brut of chilled champagne with a top cast, and a solid screenplay co written by pulp master and screenwriter George Bruce.

   Harry Melton (Brian Donlevy), is a master thief, a guy who always knows the angles, who leaves a sprig of heliotrope behind as his signature on all this crimes. Suave, debonair and impeccable, Harry is on top of the world on New Year’s 1923, having just pulled off a daring heist, and becoming the father of a baby daughter with adored wife Flo (Miriam Hopkins).

   Things seem almost too good to be true, or so his partner and friend Stubby (Harold Huber) warns, and he could be right, because Harry’s old pal and adversary Captain Tom Gaynor (Preston Foster) of the NYPD is hot on his heels this time, and seems to know a lot more than usual.

   That might be because Flo and Eddie (Philip Reed), another member of the gang, are double crossing Harry and setting him up so they can abscond with the $50,000 necklace Harry just stole.

   Harry makes short work of the two, sending them packing, but losing Flo broke him, and what kind of life can he provide his newly born daughter?

   So Harry makes a deal with Tom. Tom will collect the reward for the jewels and Harry, adopt his daughter and raise her as his own, and Harry will go to prison for the rest of his life.

   Twenty years later, Tom is a respectable state Supreme Court Justice and his daughter has just gotten engaged to marry the soldier son and scion of the Rutherford’s (William Prince) American royalty. Harry, when Stubby visits him in prison to update him, could not be happier.

   Then he finds out Flo is back in the country, and with sleazy lawyer Douglas Dumbrille is plotting to blackmail Tom, and ruin their daughter if he doesn’t pay.

   What can Harry do but bust out and set things straight?

   This all depends on the playing, and few actresses could master really unpleasant the way Miriam Hopkins did. There was always an edge to her screen persona, a bite that meant you seldom just accepted her as good or bad, but saw the nuances. She seemed to use sex more manipulatively than Harlow’s tough little not so bad girls or Davis early too self-aware sex kittens.

   There were brains under Hopkins’ blonde curls, and in some parts the soul of a rabid wolf. You could almost root for her at the same time you were hoping someone would shoot her.

   She seemed to enjoy being bad on screen more than most.

   Donlevy, well what can you say? He was ideal for this kind of role, and played a thousand variations on it, always the genial, tough, slightly sarcastic, over confident, sometimes good bad guy, sometimes likable bad guy, with forays into brute and psychotic. He could deliver a line with a sneer as well as any mustache twirling silent villain or save himself with a knowing humble grin.

   Granted he didn’t always bother to act as much as he might have, but then too, he always seemed to know when in a role he could chew effectively. This era was probably the high point of his career and he knows he has the audience with him here.

   Foster had more range than he usually got to show, and here has a pretty thankless role as a good guy who is Harry’s conscience and better angel. He does it well, just as Huber brings a little heart to his cliched role.

   Maybe that’s why I like A Gentleman After Dark so much, because it was exactly what it wanted to be, never overplayed or overwritten. It tells the story without asking you to make too many judgments, and keeps the Damon Runyon/Boston Blackie style sentiment well-iced, thanks to Donlevy’s real menace in some scenes and Hopkins soulless self interest.

TRESPASS. Universal Pictures, 1992. Bill Paxton, Ice-T, William Sadler, Ice Cube, Art Evans, De’voreaux White, Bruce A. Young. Director: Walter Hill.

   There are movies that grow on you. Movies that seem only so-so while you’re watching them for the first time, but as the days go on, you start thinking more and more about what you saw — the characters and the scenes they played and appreciating them — but it’s only when you look back that you begin to realize how well they may have been done.

   And then there are, on the other side of the coin, movies that you enjoyed immensely while you were watching hem, but when it comes time to writing up your thoughts about them as I am now, you can’t find anything to say about it. Not a single scene sticks out. Just a general sense of solid film-making, you think, but — how solid could it have been if there’s nothing there that makes you want to tell other people about it?

   Here’s the basic plot line. Two semi-redneck firemen from Arkansas, both white, come up to a deserted factory in East St. Louis and a cache of gold hidden there for years. Unknown to them, it’s also the site of a gangland execution, which by chance, at the right place at the wrong time, they happen to witness.

   And once seen, all chaos breaks out. Luckily for them, they have a hostage — the younger brother of the leader of the gang. Lots of fire power ensues. Lots. This is an action thriller par excellence. But not an iota of characterization. None. The only performance I remember is that of Art Evans, an actor whose name I did not know before, who plays a elderly black squatter in the factory, comically caught between the two warring factions.

   End of review.

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