Crime Films

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.

Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:         

TIP-OFF GIRLS. Paramount, 1938. Mary Carlisle, Lloyd Nolan, Roscoe Karns, Buster Crabbe, J. Carrol Naish, Evelyn Brent, Anthony Quinn. Director: Louis King

KING OF ALCATRAZ. Paramount, 1938. Gail Patrick, Lloyd Nolan, Harry Carey, J. Carrol Naish, Robert Preston, Anthony Quinn, Dennis Morgan (as Richard Stanley), Richard Denning. Director: Robert Florey.

   In the late ’30s Paramount initiated a series of “B” crime features with a stock company of character players including Lloyd Nolan, Akim Tamiroff Buster Crabbe, Anthony Quinn, J. Carrol Naish and anyone else free that week.

   The films are, almost without exception, fast-moving, tightly-knit and a genuine pleasure to watch. Tip-Off Girls offers Nolan as an Undercover G-Man trying to penetrate a truck-hijacking ring run by Naish (playing in an embarrassing cliche-Italian style that would probably make true Italian lose their lunch) with the sinister aid of Crabbe and Quinn.

   King of Alcatraz, though it sounds like a Prison Movie is actually set aboard a studio-built tramp steamer, captained by Harry Carey and staffed by brawling-over-a-girl-in-every-port tars Nolan (again) and Robert Preston. When escaped super-gangster Naish (a little more restrained this time) sneaks on board with a gang including B-movie icons Tom Tyler, Gustave Von Seyfertitz and Anthony Quinn (again) the Paramount back-lot positively bristles with action.

   You won’t see either of these movies listed in any Year’s Ten Best lists, but they’re both brought off with a style and pace I found quite enjoyable.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

LEPKE. AmeriEuro Pictures Corp., 1975. Tony Curtis (Louis ‘Lepke’ Buchalter), Anjanette Comer, Michael Callan, Warren Berlinger, Gianni Russo, Vic Tayback, Mary Charlotte Wilcox, Milton Berle. Director: Menachem Golan.

   Just like the heist film, the gangster film may even be considered a subgenre of the crime film, a wide enough category to safely also include mysteries, police procedurals, thrillers, and what is now referred to as film noir. And within the gangster film genre itself, there can be detected numerous sub-genres.

   Menachem Golan’s Lepke, a biopic of Murder Inc.’s Louis “Lepke” Buchalter can be categorized as an “American Jewish gangster film,” a sub-genre that also includes Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In America (1984) and Barry Levinson’s Bugsy (1991).

   Tony Curtis, at a pivotal point in his career, portrays the title character in a role in which he fit perfectly. His accent, mannerisms, and physicality all serve him well here. There are some moments, such as when Lepke blows his top in front of his men, which are simply thrilling to behold. Curtis had a wide range of acting ability and could convey a lot of meaning with very little expression.

   Unfortunately, the rather flat script overall doesn’t leave Curtis all that much to work with.

   The film, which traces Buchalter’s life from a delinquent Brooklyn childhood to his ultimate execution at Sing Sing just doesn’t have enough tension to make the film nearly as good as it could have been. But Golan, who would go on to produce numerous 1980s action films, nevertheless deserves credit for telling Lepke’s story without sentimentalism. Lepke is neither a complete villain, nor is he a hero. He’s portrayed as deeply flawed individual, a man both constrained and defined by his ethnic and religious background.

LARCENY. Universal International, 1948. John Payne, Joan Caulfield, Dan Duryea, Shelley Winters, Dorothy Hart, Percy Helton, Patricia Alphin, Don Wilson. Based on the novel The Velvet Fleece by Lois Eby & John Fleming. Director: George Sherman.

   This little-known but still better than average film noir seems to have fallen through the cracks. With the huge popularity of genre, with any inconsequential black-and-white movie being swooped up and called a noir film, you’d think that someone would have recognized this as the real thing and put it out as something other than as an under the counter collector-to-collector DVD.

   Which is how you can find this one, and the only way, if you go looking. While not a full-fledged masterpiece, it’s certainly worth the time to go searching for it. As you might expect, Dan Duryea is one of bad guys, and the ruggedly handsome John Payne is a member of his gang of con-men. Their favorite modus operandi is letting their marks persuade themselves into backing some sort of real estate venture, while Duryea and the others are there, ready and willing to make off with the funds.

   In Larceny, Payne is the one who is elected to hustle a war widow (Joan Caulfield) into building a home for wayward boys as a memorial for her husband, killed in action in the war and for whom she is still mourning. And he’s so convincing as the dead man’s buddy that I think I would have believed him myself.

   Complications? You shouldn’t doubt it for a minute. She is obviously falling in love with him. He for her? It is difficult to say, but it seems to be the road the story is taking. But messing things up completely is a brassy blonde named Tory (Shelley Winters) who is nominally Duryea’s girl but who has a yen for Payne. Amd he for her, all things considered.

   And that’s not all. There are two other good-looking women in the tale who are more than willing to slip John Payne’s character their telephone numbers. I said ruggedly handsome, and I meant it.

   And as in true noir fashion, things do not end well for all of the participants. Everyone seemed to be having a good time making it, and I enjoyed watching, never quite knowing which way it was heading.

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