Crime Films


SCREAMING MIMI. Columbia Pictures, 1958. Anita Ekberg, Philip Carey, Gypsy Rose Lee, Harry Townes, Linda Cherney. Based on the novel The Screaming Mimi, by Fredric Brown. Director: Gerd Oswald.

THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE. Seda Spettacoli, Italy-Germany, 1970. CBS, US, 1977 (TV, original airing). 21st Century Film Corporation, US, 1982. (theatrical re-release). Original title: L’uccello dalle piume di cristallo. Tony Musante, Suzy Kendall, Enrico Maria Salerno, Eva Renzi. Screenplay by Dario Argento, based on the novel The Screaming Mimi by Fredric Brown (uncredited). Director: Dario Argento.

   I’ve spoken often and highly of Fredric Brown;s classic mystery novel of strip-clubs and theology, The Screaming Mimi (Dutton, 1949) and recently betook myself to watching both film versions of it, side-by-side and back-to-back, through the miracle of VCRm watching a chunk of one, then the other, than back again…

   The Screaming Mimi (Columbia, 19580 offers some kicking-and-kinky direction from Gerd Oswald, a cult director in the Jim Jones tradition, which is to say he showed a lot of potential in low-budget westerns and thrillers, and managed one classic, A Kiss Before Dying (1956) before drinking the kool-aid of network television.

   Mimi belongs to his Promising period, with a pleasantly straightforward (for the 50s) to homosexuality, bondage, obsession and amour fou, but it’s undone by a screenplay that seems way too limp for a movie about serial killings.

   There’s never a sense of momentum here, no feeling of progressing towards some resolution. Instead, events just seem to come along and happening no particular order, the head off in any direction whatever, just sort of strutting and fretting across the screen till their allotted hour-or-so is over at last.

   A pity, because there are glimmers here and there of what could have been a perverse classic.

   The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (Italy, 1970) on the other hand, is a certified wowser. The directorial debut of Dario Argento, who became something of a Name in Horror films, this is a garish, fast-moving, humorous movie about serial slashing, stalking, knifing and general mayhem set against colorful locations, played and/or dubbed by a cast a cut (sorry!) above the usual run of Italian imports.

   Fredric Brown got no screen credit for this film, and for years critics who knew nothing about Pulp averred that it was based on an Edgar Wallace story, but I defy anyone out there to show me an Edgar Wallace book with this plot. I’ll wrestle anyone in the crowd who thinks he can do it. No takers? I thought not.

   Anyway, getting back to the story, this follows Brown’s novel pretty closely, right down to the minor characters and bits of by-play. Argento tossed away the thematic framework of Brown’s novel, and he turned the hard-drinking loner of the book into a young married couple, ut that’s a fate that befell many of us in the 70s.

   The fact is, this is a fairly faithful translation of The Screaming Mimi into film, and if not all of it could have been (The real meaning of the book isn’t revealed until the last page, and it’s truly harrowing.), it’s at least a fun ride.

— Reprinted from The Hound of Dr. Johnson, May 2005.

A STRANGE ADVENTURE. Republic Pictures, 1956. Joan Evans, Ben Cooper, Marla English, Jan Merlin, Nick Adams, Peter Miller. Director: William Witney.

   We could have a contest with 20 entries to choose a better title than the one A Strange Adventure was saddled with, and I have no doubt that all 20 would be a ten times improvement. My guess is that in 1956 Republic was beginning to cut back, a little at a time, and the first people to go were the ones in charge of choosing titles for the movies they made. (I don’t know what the particular job title for this might be.)

   It turns out that what this is is a heist film, a rather minor one, true, but with an action director such as William Witney at the helm, it does have its moments. There’s something happening on the screen all the time — that is to say until he ending, which I’ll get to in a moment.

   Marla English plays the femme fatale in this one, playing the young tempting sexpot role for all she’s worth, and the focus is almost entirely on her for most of the first half of the movie. First she’s flirting with Harold Norton (Ben Cooper), the hot rod-obsessed son of her landlady; then with the driver of the armored car she and her two confederates (Jan Merlin and Nick Adams) are going to rob; and then with the leader of the small threesome (Merlin), who doesn’t hesitate to slap her down whenever he thinks he should.

   Once the loot is in their hands, though, and the armored car driver dead, they don’t have much of a plan. They borrow Harold’s car (with him as driver) and speed off to the mountains at 100 miles per hour.

   With no one following them, this is not the best way to avoid being spotted by the police, but never fear, the police seem to be off looking somewhere else.

   And somehow they end up in a cabin about to be snowed in for the winter. In the cabin are a brother and sister (Joan Evans and Peter Miller) whose job it is is to monitor the amount of snow that’s fallen all winter long. One problem: the latter have to radio in twice a week, or the folks down below will know something is wrong. Three gang members with three captives, all in close quarters. No wonder things do not go well.

   Factoring in the fact the two male gang members are as dumb as dirt, the movie is still quite watchable, if not totally engaging. The ending is extremely rushed, though, and that’s putting it mildly. The production crew may have run out of money. I have no idea how Harold knew where the money was, or did he? I don’t think he did, nor did the writer of this whole misguided adventure.


ROBBERY UNDER ARMS. Rank, British/Australian, 1957. Peter Finch, Ronald Lewis, David McCallum, Maureen Swanson, Jill Ireland, and Laurence Naismith. Screenplay by Alexander Baron, W.P. Lipscomb and Richard Mason, from the novel by Rolf Boldrewood. Directed by Jack Lee.

   From the title, I assumed this was a British crime film, which only flaunts my ignorance. Turns out Robbery Under Arms is a well-known tale of Aussie outlaws (called Bushrangers) set in the 1860s, the basis of four films before this (the first in 1907) and one in 1985.

   This one turned out rather well. I’m not sure why Peter Finch got top billing, since Ronald Lewis and David McCallum carry the weight of the story and the bulk of the screen time, but he does, and they do — quite effectively, as two outback lads who decide to help out their dad (Laurence Naismith) with a spot of cattle rustling in the employ of Captain Starlight (Finch), a sort of down-under Jesse James with a penchant for robbery and a sense of loyalty that doesn’t stop at murder.

   “Murder” I sez and Murder is what we see here. Robbery has the look and feel of an American Western, replete with cattle rustling, gold-mining, bank robberies and horseback pursuits. But when it comes down to shooting and folks get shot down, it’s usually from ambush, at a distance, and more like the stark, stupid violence of Bonnie & Clyde than the measured mayhem of Red River and Shane.

   The plot line here is enjoyably pointless. Having committed the greatest cattle-rustle in history, our boys find themselves wanted men, and learn that life on the run is harsh and lonely. They change their names, find honest work and stick to it, only to discover that the World’s smallest continent isn’t big enough to hide in.

   David McCallum is particularly good at this, his slender frame and big blue eyes conveying a haggard longing for the decent life. Ronald Lewis is equally fine as his tougher brother, yearning for the elusive Clean Slate, both men matched up with Maureen Swanson and Jill Ireland as the women they dream of sharing a life with.

   As for Peter Finch, well he’s dashing enough as the legendary bushranger, but frankly he doesn’t have much to do except dash across the Outback and look legendary. Fortunately, Robbery Under Arms has enough going on — and the supporting players carry enough conviction — to do quite nicely without him.

THE FRIGHTENED CITY. Anglo-Amalgamated Films, UK. 1961; Allied Artists, US, 1962. Herbert Lom, John Gregson, Sean Connery, Alfred Marks, Yvonne Romain, Olive McFarland. Director: John Lemont.

   A black-and-white British gangster film that the number three cast member takes over and makes his own. Sean Connery plays Paddy Damion in The Frightened City, a petty crook who is roped into the protection rackets covering all of London by the smooth-talking Harry Foulcher (Alfred Marks) who is secretly working for a malevolent crime boss by the name of Waldo Zhernikov (Herbert Lom).

   It is the latter’s idea to form an association of all the local mobsters in the same racket and make the entire city cry out for help. It is Paddy’s job to help keep everyone in line. Until, that is, one of the head gangsters objects to Zhernikov’s plans to escalate their criminous activities, and unknowingly to Paddy, he is the one who is chosen to help eliminate him.

   Even at this early stage of his career, and even though he’s on the wrong side of the law, Sean Connery is both cool and urbane, with a unmistakable eye for the ladies. He’s also the absolute focus of attention whenever whenever he’s on the screen. Solidly if not slickly produced, The Frightened City has the look of having had a bigger budget than usual for British crime films of the same era — no Hammer quickie this.


EDGE OF DOOM. Samuel Goldwyn, 1950. Released in Britain as Stronger Than Fear. Dana Andrews, Farley Granger, Joan Evans, Robert Keith, Paul Stewart, Mala Powers, Adele Jergens, Harold Vermilyea, Douglas Fowley and Ray Teal. Screenplay by Charles Brackett, Ben Hecht and Philip Yordan, from the novel by Leo Brady. Directed by Mark Robson.

   A powerful and moving film noir despite some pasted-in tampering.

   Farley Granger stars as Martin Lynn, a hard-working young man up against it: low-pay, a sick mother, and in love with a woman he can’t afford to marry. He has also carried a grudge against the Catholic Church ever since his father’s death by suicide years earlier.

   Brackett, Hecht and Yordan sketch out his dilemma in a few pungent scenes as Martin frets over his mom, all but begs for a raise to move her to a healthier climate — and gets warmly refused. Director Robson handles it quickly, in a prosaic, sunlit style, contrasted with Granger’s politely controlled desperation, then moves to moodiness when Mom dies, leaving Martin shadowed in guilt—and determined to give her a fine funeral.

   Things progress with a fine scene, written and played perfectly as Martin argues with the parish priest over what is clearly going to be a charity job. He’s up against Harold Verrmilyea, who had a good line in bent lawyers and venal medicos in those days. Here he’s cast as a burned-out priest who has lost the warmth and care Martin so badly needs. His dour refusal clashes with Martin’s growing angst and the young man’s well-bred manners visibly disintegrate when Vermilyea tosses him a buck for cab fare; more frustrated than angry, he clubs the priest to death with a heavy metal cross.

   From here on, Edge of Doom moves solidly into noir territory, following Martin through a nightmare of suspicion, dread and guilt like a tortured Raskolnikov, harassed by hard cops (Robert Keith, Douglas Fowley and Ray Teal at their nastiest) befriended by Dana Andrews as Vermilyea’s compassionate successor, and tempted by sardonic Paul Stewart as a petty crook.

   Edge is well played and poignantly written, but what struck me most was the steep visual style imparted by director Robson and photographer Harry Stradling. Together they fill the frame with vertical lines: tall buildings, high windows and elongated door frames, imparting a unique and evocative look to visually reinforce Edge’s themes of alienation and redemption.

   Vertical lines serve to isolate Farley Granger’s character on the screen, and suggest oppression. But they also convey salvation. The great cathedrals and many other religious structures are traditionally designed with strong vertical lines, lifting the eye upward to the heavens. And so it is here, as the viewer sees on a subconscious level that Martin has a chance to rise from the mess of his life… and wonders if he’ll take it.

   I’ll just add here that after some negative preview feedback — and, I suspect (but have no evidence for) pressure from the Church — producer Sam Goldwyn ordered Dana Andrews back for some additional scenes, showing him as a knowing but compassionate priest to further counterbalance Harold Vermilyea’s unsympathetic portrayal. They also added a prologue and epilogue to show us everything’s just fine, go home folks, and don’t worry, your Priest knows best.

   And I won’t comment on that except to say it doesn’t spoil a gripping and eloquent film.


Q & A. TriStar, 1990. Nick Nolte, Timothy Hutton, Armand Assante, Patrick O’Neal, Jenny Lumet. Based on th ebook by Edwin Torres. Screenplay and director: Sidney Lumet.

   Long after you’ve forgotten the labyrinthian plot of Q & A, you will remember Nick Nolte. In Sidney Lumet’s gritty film, Nolte’s character isn’t so much an actor as he is a force of nature. Brutal, strong, domineering, and aggressive are just several words to describe NYPD Lieutenant Mike Brennan. A man so devoted to his career that he seems to have no identity beyond it, Brennan is not just a blatant racist and homophobe.

   He’s a dangerous killer, a man who has been so thoroughly corrupted that, at some level, he no longer knows who exactly he is supposed to answer to. Is it the corrupt lawyer in the DA’s office who has dirt on him? Is it the Mafia boss whose dirty work he is willing to do, if it means murdering a Puerto Rican drug dealer, a man no one in respectable society is going to miss anyway?

   When Brennan starts feeling the heat from Assistant DA Reilly (Timothy Hutton), he becomes unhinged with rage. Willing to do next to anything for the sake of self-preservation, Brennan embarks upon a brutal murder spree that takes him from the mean streets of Harlem to sunny San Juan. In his sights is drug lord Bobby Texador (Armand Assante), a stereotypical bad guy with a conscience, who is now living with Reilly’s former flame (Jenny Lumet).

   While the first half of the movie is quite compelling, the latter hour ends up getting bogged down in multiple plot threads that become somewhat difficult to follow. Everything eventually ties up together, but in such a manner that makes one realize that certain scenes either weren’t absolutely necessary to make the film work (think: the love triangle between Hutton, Assante, and Lumet) or went on too long.

   It is after all the scenes with Nolte that makes this lesser known Lumet feature worth watching. Apparently, he gained forty pounds for the role, believing that his character needed to be a physically imposing presence. It was a good decision. Nolte’s Mike Brennan belongs in the pantheon of cinematic corrupt cops. He’s that memorable a character. Loud, vulgar, and brash, he’s terrifying to the two detectives tasked with investigating him. For good reason.


  CANON CITY. Eagle-Lion Films, 1948. Scott Brady, Jeff Corey, Whit Bissell, Stanley Clements, Charles Russell, DeForest Kelley, Ralph Byrd, Mabel Paige, (Warden) Roy Best as himself. Narrator: Reed Hadley. Cinematography: John Alton. Screenwriter-Director: Crane Wilbur.

   Film noir aficionados looking for a movie that has previously escaped their attention should look no further than Canon City, a surprisingly effective crime film put out by Eagle-Lion Films. Written and directed by Crane Wilbur, who also penned both the story and script for He Walked By Night, also from 1948 and reviewed here, Canon City notably features stark black and white cinematography by John Alton, who is perhaps best known today for his ongoing collaborations with director Anthony Mann.

   Traversing genres, the semi-documentary film named after the Colorado city where the action takes place is simultaneously a work of social realism in the 1930s Warner Brothers mold, a prison break movie, and a home invasion thriller.

   Scott Brady, in his first leading role, portrays Jim Sherbondy, a doomed protagonist if there ever were one. As teenager who got mixed up with a bad crowd and whose subsequent criminal path led him to a lengthy sentence of incarceration for murdering a cop, Sherbondy is now doing his best to reform himself within the confines of the prison walls. But trouble seems to follow him wherever he goes. Other convicts planning a prison break exploit his good reputation with the guards and snooker him into becoming a key player in a prison break.

   Leading the pack of thieves and murderers is Carl Schwartzmiller. Jeff Corey takes this role and lends it an infectious energy. We know his character is a miscreant, yet in Corey’s more than capable hands, he fascinates us with his sardonic wit and fatalistic worldview as much as repels us. Look for the diabolically tense scene wherein Schwartzmiller takes an elderly couple hostage in their home. The camera follows the old woman, carrying both a hammer and an orange, as she slowly creeps up on the criminal ringleader, hoping to smash his skull. Schwartzmiller turns around and notices her presence, asking what she has with her. She offers him an orange. He gladly accepts and begins to peel it.

   A trifling scene perhaps. But one that only reinforces my belief that Corey remains one of the great character actors of that era.

WINGS OF DANGER. Hammer Films, UK, 1952. Lippert Pictures, US, 1952 as Dead on Course. Zachary Scott, Robert Beatty, Naomi Chance, Kay Kendall, Colin Tapley, Arthur Lane, Harold Lang, Diane Cilento. Screenwriter: John Gilling, based on the novel Dead on Course by Mansell Black (Elleston Trevor aka Trevor Dudley Smith}. [Note: The movie credits also give Packham Webb as a co-author of the book.] Director: Terence Fisher.

   Zachary Scott, in my opinion, made a better villain in the movies he made than he did a hero. He had a beautiful speaking voice, but he seemed to have a perpetual semi-scowl on his face, the thought being that he had some sort of subtle dislike of what he was doing or who he was dealing with.

   But in Wings of Danger he is the hero, and if it doesn’t work out well, which I don’t think it does, I’d be the first to admit that it wasn’t all his fault. The story doesn’t allow his character much range at all, and you really have to wonder what he might have been able to do with a better script.

   He plays a post-WWII cargo pilot who’s been successfully hiding the blackout spells he’s been having from the firm he’s working for, and when he tries to stop a buddy (Robert Beatty) from taking off into stormy weather, the buddy threatens to tell all and flies off anyway. And his plane is never heard from again.

   Well, the wreckage is, but there’s no body to be found. The police are interested — smuggling is suspected — and Scott’s character (a fellow named Van Ness) is implicated. Van Ness’s other motive for snooping around is keep everything a secret from his friend’s sister and father, who idolize him.

   You might be thinking of The Third Man right about here, and rightly so. There is a lot more to the plot than I’m going to go into, but rather than adding to the story, it makes it all the more muddled. As an example of film noir, the story’s adequate. The photography, within the limitations of a low budget, is even more so.


CROOKS ANONYMOUS. Independent Artists, UK, 1962. Leslie Phillips, Stanley Baxter, Wilfrid Hyde-White, Pauline Jameson, James Robertson Justice, Raymond Huntley and Julie Christie. Written by Jack Davies and Henry Blyth. Directed by Ken Annakin.

   An unexpected Christmas movie.

   Leslie Philips stars as a smooth thief with a jaunty front, given to cigarette holders, poking people with his umbrella and calling everyone “Sport.” As the film opens, he seems rather good at his trade — there’s a clever scene in his apartment where his stripper girlfriend, Babette LaTour (Julie Christie!) challenges him to show her one thing there that isn’t stolen. He casts about a bit, finally points to her picture on the mantle and adds, “Not the frame of course.”

   Persuaded by love to go straight he enrolls in Crooks Anonymous, an institution that reforms crooks, run by Wilfrid Hyde-White, but the bulk of the job is carried by Stanley Baxter, and quite well too, in a variety of disguises as a nasty “Guardian Angel.” We first see him, disguised as a priest, seating himself on a park bench beside two attractive young ladies, and pulling out a book titled Flogging.

   Phillips’ crash course in Honesty is quite amusing, but the film really kicks into high gear when he lands a job as a department store Santa and gets locked in the store on Christmas Eve, with a safe full of untraceable money.

   I won’t go into details here, but it’s riotous fun, perfectly played by a host of British character actors who get a laugh out of every scene. I particularly liked Raymond Huntley (the unspeakable husband in So Evil My Love (reviewed here ) as a nasty store manager, and James Robertson Justice as his nastier boss.

   The Holidays have peaked and waned, but if you can get a look at this one, I guarantee a Holly-Jolly Post-Christmas.


KIND LADY MGM, 1935. Aline MacMahon, Basil Rathbone, Mary Carlisle, Frank Albertson, Dudley Digges, Murray Kinnell, Justine Chase, Eiley Malyon, Barbara Shields, and Donald Meek. Screenplay by Bernard Schubert, from the play by Edward Chodorov, from the story by Hugh Walpole (which is a bit of a downer). Directed by George B. Seitz.

   A real treat: literate, suspenseful, perfectly played and subtly directed.

   Aline MacMahon carries her end skillfully as a middle-aged woman who has become a bit too retiring – not cutting off social ties exactly, but fraying them considerably, perfectly content to stay at home in her fine London townhouse attended by her cook and maid.

   Then, on Christmas Eve, she sees a penniless sidewalk artist (Basil Rathbone in a chameleonic mode) outside her house, invites him in, and listens sympathetically as he speaks of his wife and child. He leaves with a bit of charity and her expensive cigarette lighter, and she thinks no more of it until he calls again a few nights later and tries to sell her one of his paintings.

   He points out his wife, waiting outside, and (as if on cue) she collapses in the street. Rathbone runs for a doctor (Murray Kinnell) who says the woman must be put in bed immediately, apparently thinking she lives there, and carries her to an upstairs bedroom for a few days’ rest.

   And thus has her home been invaded. Rathbone, suddenly imperious, irritates the cook into quitting, browbeats the maid, and when some friends of his sick wife come to call, they insist — forcefully — on staying, imprisoning Ms MacMahon in her own house, then proceed to sell the furnishings and take over her bank accounts as they plan her untimely end.

   The basic story is cunningly wrought, opened out nicely by scenarist Bernard Schubert without losing the essential claustrophobic nature of the piece. The players do quite well by it, notably Rathbone starting off poor-but-proud and moving on to insufferable. Dudley Digges radiates good-natured cheer like fingernails on a chalkboard, and his wife and daughter….

   Well, this is a subtle touch that screams for attention. Director George B. Seitz uses body language cunningly throughout the film: Basil Rathbone seems to tower over everyone and stand entirely too close. Dudly Digges doesn’t sit on the couch; he sprawls. As soon as his wife enters the house she starts fondling the table legs(!), and the daughter can’t keep her hands off things, picking up delicate knick-knacks, rifling through makeup, and generally behaving like a klepto-fetishist. The whole effect is of an alien invasion, and it’s damn creepy.

   Aline MacMahon shines throughout this part of the film, but she does it quietly. Drugged by Rathbone & co., she resists the opiates but tries not to let them see, keeping her movements restrained to the point where sometimes we the viewers aren’t sure how clearly she’s thinking. Then she slips someone a note, gives a veiled warning, or otherwise lets us know there’s more going on here than meets the eye.

   Two other performances of note: as Aline’s nephew-in-law who senses something amiss, Frank Albertson throws in a brash portrayal that seems to have come from another movie — completely at odds with the other players, but somehow right for the part. Five year later he was doing the same schtick in Man-Made Monster to less effect.

   And then there’s Donald Meek, the eternal milquetoast, displaying delightful heroism as a little guy with a stubborn streak. It’s a surprising, comic and totally delightful moment in a film that kept me watching with equal parts suspense and pleasure.

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