Crime Films


MILDRED PIERCE. Warner Brothers, 1945. Joan Crawford, Jack Carson, Zachary Scott, Eve Arden, Ann Blyth, Bruce Bennett, Lee Patrick, Moroni Olsen, Veda Ann Borg. Screenplay by Ranald MacDougall, based on the novel by James M. Cain. Director: Michael Curtiz.

   I recently saw Mildred Pierce and came away just dumbfounded that anyone – even a Movie Critic – could watch this movie and fail to notice the strong, even idiosyncratic, hand of director Michael Curtiz at work. Take the opening: A mildly-surprised-looking Zachary Scott, seen in a mirror, shuddering under the impact of bullets hitting his frame, even as the mirror splinters and shatters, just as he hits the floor and rolls into full close-up before our eyes. In terms of screen time, it’s only a few seconds, but visually, it’s an incredibly complex blend of deft mise-en-scene and seamless editing, knowingly orchestrated by a master of the form.

   Surprisingly enough, Curtiz manages to steer the film from this dizzy beginning through a palpaceous plot of Mother Love, Teenage Lust and Middle-aged Greed without once letting the pace falter. He keeps it right at the hungry edge of violence, like an addict staring at a needle, for nearly two hours’ fast-paced running time, and gets deft performances along the way from the likes of Bruce Bennett, Zachary Scott, Eve Arden, Ann Blythe and — inevitably — Joan Crawford.

   Ah yes, Joan Crawford. In the role that revived her career. The cult of her personality, I fear, has always obscured the virtues of this remarkable film, just as Bogart’s cult “obscured” Casablanca: by shining so much Star Power on it that it ceased to be a film, and became instead a shrine, whence the Faithful are called several times a year to bask their idols in adoration.

   Which offers a clue to Curtiz’ critical neglect: He was so good at enshrining major personalities (including Flynn, Cagney, Bette Davis and even Boris Karloff) that their fans always tended to overlook him — forgetting that gods do not exist until someone builds temples to them – and critics never noticed the consistent stylistic complexity that he lavished on even his minor films. Thus he became an “anonymous” director to folks who just wasn’t looking.

   Getting back to Mildred Pierce, though, it’s a lavish blend of Mystery, Soap Opera and even pre-feminist rhetoric, and though the icons who populate this particular temple have remained somewhat critically unfashionable, the showcase itself deserves a fresh look.

LOVE, CHEAT & STEAL. Showtime, 1993. John Lithgow, Eric Roberts, Mädchen Amick, Richard Edson, Donald Moffat, Dan O’Herlihy. Screenwriter/director: William Curran.

   There are some bits and jots of a good film noir story here, along with a bank heist that goes bad — don’t they all in movies like this? — but the pieces didn’t really jell for me. I believe this movie, which I taped off the Showtime movie channel back in 1993, is also available on DVD, but if you want my advice, in spite of some good reviews left by commenters on IMDb, I don’t believe you want to shell out a lot of money for it.

   Here’s a quick outline of the story, or as quick as I can make it. John Lithgow is an older man with a young attractive wife (Madchen Amick), the basis of plenty of good stories already. It turns out, though, that she was once married to a nogoodnik (Eric Roberts) whom she failed to get a divorce from after making sure he was safely in jail. He has now broken out and is coming to find her.

   It also turns out that Lithgow’s father’s bank has been used as a money laundering way station. The men overseeing everyday operations have been working hand-in-hand with the local gang of drug crime lords. Roberts is appropriately slimy — he introduces himself to Lithgow as Amick’s brother — and what can she day to stop him?

   She’s caught in middle, in other words. Does she love Lithgow, or is she really interested only in his money? Is she still attracted to Roberts, her real husband? I will not tell you, but even with the aforementioned bank heist that goes bad, not really interesting happens until the end, which is worth waiting for, but until then the tale is only indifferently — and often confusingly — told.

   A better femme fatale may have helped. In daylight Madchen Amick is quite pretty if not really strikingly beautiful, but indoors and in bad light, she is so physically tiny that the darkness seems to simply swallow her up.

   I would like to go back and see how well the ending — which is a doozy — actually fits, but all in all, one time only is the limit I’ve restricted myself to for this one.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

UNION STATION. Paramount Pictures, 1950. William Holden, Nancy Olson, Barry Fitzgerald, Lyle Bettger, Jan Sterling. Based on the Edgar-winning novel Nightmare in Manhattan by Thomas Walsh. Director: Rudolph Maté.

   Maybe I’m missing something because, as far as I can tell, a lot of my fellow film critics seem to really think that Union Station has a lot going for it. Apart from an exquisitely choreographed gritty chase scene at the end, this lackluster 1950 crime film plods along with uninspiring characters and stale dialogue. There’s some good on location photography and if you like train stations, Union Station does have a lot to offer. But overall the film really just pales in comparison to the myriad other crime films and films noir released in the same era.

   Directed by Rudolph Maté, the movie features William Holden as William Calhoun, a train station police lieutenant. After a passenger named Joyce Willecombe (Nancy Olsen) sees two men with guns in the same car as her, she reports it to Calhoun. Turns out that Joyce has stumbled upon a kidnapping plot in which her boss’s blind daughter has been snatched and is being held for ransom.

   The plot then follows Lt. Calhoun as he and his men, all under the watchful eye of Inspector Donnelly (Barry Fitzgerald), seek to identify and root out the kidnappers. They’re more than willing to play rough and go so far as to threaten one of the criminals with death should he refuse to cooperate. This, unlike the romance between Calhoun and Joyce, gives the police procedural realistic feel to it.

   Overall, what Union Station feels like is a movie with an identity crisis. Is it supposed to be a character study of Lt. Calhoun, a police procedural, or merely a set piece about a train station where the crime story is merely secondary? Although some of my fellow critics seem to regard the movie as a stellar film noir, I must confess that I viewed it as a rather clumsy crime film more akin to late 1930s crime themed B-films than the stellar works of Richard Fleischer and Anthony Mann.

THE KILLING. United Artists, 1956. Sterling Hayden, Coleen Gray, Vince Edwards, Jay C. Flippen, Ted DeCorsia, Marie Windsor, Elisha Cook, Joe Sawyer. Screenplay: Stanley Kubrick, with additional dialogue by Jim Thompson; based on the novel Clean Break by Lionel White.. Director: Stanley Kubrick.

   A revolutionary heist film in many regards, and considered by many viewers as a classic. (It has an 8.0 rating on IMDb.) Not Kubrick’s first film, but while it’s one that while it didn’t make a lot of money at the box office, what it did do was to make film critics sit up and take notice of a new guy in town.

   The story is a old one by now, and maybe it was even then: The theft of $2,000,000 in cash from a race track is meticulously planned, and everything goes as smooth as silk when all of a sudden, it doesn’t. What’s distinctive about this film is that it’s shown in non-linear fashion, and I’m willing to wager that in 1956 audiences were not ready for stories told that way, even with some (studio required) voiceover narration to help them out.

   One problem I personally have with this film is that I do not believe for one second that Marie Windsor’s character would stay married to Elisha Cook for five minutes, much less than five years. I only wish she had had more screen time. What a femme fatale she was in almost every movie she made, and she was never more fatale than she is in this one.

   It is the ending that makes this movie pure noir. When he’s forced to improvise, Sterling Hayden, the mastermind of the plot that he sees disintegrating around him, he starts to make mistakes that he might not otherwise. All that effort — and all that money — [SPOILER ALERT] just blowing away in the wind.

THE BROTHERHOOD. Paramount Pictures, 1968. Kirk Douglas, Alex Cord, Irene Papas, Luther Adler, Susan Strasberg, Murray Hamilton, Eduardo Ciannelli. Music: Lalo Schifrin. Producer: Kirk Douglas. Director: Martin Ritt.

   I don’t know where this movie fits precisely into the chronology of Mafia-based crime films, but while there were certainly gangster movies before The Brotherhood was filmed, in terms of realism, none were quite like this one. It was also four years before The Godfather showed up and finally convinced everyone how they were supposed to be done.

   The story has it that when this one bombed so badly at the box office, it took quite a while to convince the people at Paramount to do another one, which of course was The Godfather.

   The reason I bring this up is that, well, first of all, the movie is actually quite good, but if you can’t place it properly in the evolution of Mafia movies, it can be viewed as a whole series of clichés. Kirk Douglas plays Frank Ginetta, an old-fashioned Mafia don based in New York City; Alex Cord is his (much) younger Vince, who’s gone to college, is home from Viet Nam, has just gotten married, and wants to join the “firm.” Big brother Frank is elated.

   But Vince and the other members of the council want to abandon the old ways and start finding new ways to invest their money and talents. This causes all kinds of problems, as you can imagine. Frank also finds out who provided the tip-off that happened many years ago that resulted in the massacre of over 40 members of the Mafia at the time, including Frank’s father.

   Frank does not take this very well, and his actions leave Vince squarely in the middle. Kirk Douglas takes this role and makes it entirely his own. He is an ebullient lover of his family, good food and happy times, and yet he casually and reminiscently tells someone about the first hit he ever made — when he was eighteen years old.

   Alex Cord, in contrast, and perhaps deliberately so, downplays his role so low that you barely know he’s in the film. He’s grim and dour while his brother’s innate nature is cheerful and charming. The ending is perhaps inevitable, but the getting there is not only absorbing, but a lot of fun to watch.

   If the movie didn’t do well financially, perhaps the movie audiences of the day were simply not ready for it. Another possibility, of course, is that I’m the only one in the world who has ever enjoyed it, but I’m fairly sure that that’s not so.


ROOM 43. British Lion, UK, 1958. Originally released in the UK as Passport to Shame. Odile Versois, Herbert Lom, Diana Dors, Eddie Constantine, Brenda de Banzie. Written by Patrick Alexander. Directed by Alvin Rakoff.

   The ultimate British “B” picture.

   Eddie Constantine stars (despite his 4th billing) as a London cab driver who gets in a financial pinch with a rather iffy loan company and is befriended by suave, wealthy Herbert Lom… who, it turns out, owns the Loan Company. Indebted to Lom, Eddie gladly agrees to a marriage of convenience to cute, virginal Odile Versois, who needs to marry a British subject so she can stay in the employ of a nice rich lady (Brenda de Banzie.)

   It’s all a tissue of lies, of course. Odile was framed for theft by her employer back in France, who is in league with de Banzie, who is in league with Herbert Lom, who runs one of those high-overhead white-slave outfits you see only in movies: the kind I mentioned in House of a Thousand Dolls. [Reviewed here. ]

   In this case, the expenses of enslaving Ms. Versois include bribing her erstwhile boss back in France, Ms de Banzie’s elegant apartment, the cost of getting a big truck to smash Eddie Constantine’s cab, then paying for the damages and tearing up the loan. There’s also the iffy loan company front, but maybe it pays for itself. Maybe it also pays for the small army of hired thugs Herbert Lom keeps at hand to ambush Eddie every ten minutes or so and beat him up when he gets qualms of conscience about the lovely Odile. As for the elaborate brothel, complete with secret passageways and a “respectable” façade where de Banzie holds court… well damned if I know where the money’s coming from.

   But of course this wasn’t meant to be believable. Gritty, sordid and tough, yes, but in no way believable. Sort of the cinematic equivalent of an old Gold Medal paperback, with our hero rescuing the heroine, who is promptly snatched away by the bad guys, then rescued again, then… well you get the idea. There’s a nifty car chase, a few fights, a tawdry drug-dream, roof-top cliffhanger, and a general donnybrook when the Cabbies of London (here acting as England’s version of the Texas Rangers) battle Herbert Lom’s goon squad.

   There’s also a brassy jazz score reminiscent of Elmer Bernstein’s classic Man with the Golden Arm, but perhaps the major point of interest here is Diana Dors, playing the proverbial hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold and decked out in lingerie right out of an Irving Klaw catalogue.

   Without Diana Dors, this would still have been engagingly trashy, but her appearance here lifts it into the class of sublimely sleazy. Not a great film by any standards — maybe not even a very good one — but fun all the way.


TENSION. MGM, 1949. Richard Basehart, Audrey Totter, Cyd Charisse, Barry Sullivan, Lloyd Gough, William Conrad. Written by Alan Rivkin and John Klorer. Directed by John Berry.

   A neat, twisty little noir that comes close to perfection.

   Willard Quimby (Richard Basehart) starts out as the bespectacled night manager of an all-night L.A. drugstore, back in the days when every drugstore had a soda fountain, a tube-tester, a cigar humidor and the latest out-of-town newspapers. And I have to say right at the start that photographer Harry Stradling and art director Leonid Vasian make this place come alive with a wealth of detail captured in sharp, deep-focus photography: the perfect real-life backdrop for the characters who live in it.

   We quickly learn that Willard’s wife Claire (Audrey Totter) seems to be trying for the title of Town Tramp in the Greater Los Angeles Metropolitan Area, blatantly cheating on him (with a surprising frankness for an MGM film of this period) and belittling him every chance she gets. Nonetheless, he loves her and reacts with dog-like devotion to every crumb of scorn she tosses at him.

   Well we’ve all had relationships like that, haven’t we? But when she moves in with showy Barney Dauger (Lloyd Gough), Warren is devastated. Distraught, he shows up at Barney’s beach house and gets in a scuffle with Barney, who knees him in the crotch (another unexpected moment for a 1949 MGM movie) and leaves him writhing humiliated in the sand in front of his unfaithful wife.

   Someone said something clever once about a little man scorned, but I forget what it was. In any event, it prompts Willard to murder, and he conceives a brilliant/half-baked scheme to get away with it; he gets contact lenses and assumes a secret identity: Paul Sothern, a traveling salesman staying weekends at a nice apartment complex and occasionally phoning threats to Daeger, making sure to leave his name. His thinking is that when he-as-Sothern murders Daeger, Sothern can simply disappear, leaving him safe as Warren Quimby.

   What he doesn’t count on is that his role as Paul Sothern will be much more enjoyable than his life as Quimby. He even meets a pretty neighbor (Cyd Charisse) at his new apartment complex, they feel drawn to each other, and for a while he considers just forgetting about the whole murder thing and making a good life with a nice girl who loves him. But then he remembers his humiliation and steels his resolve to throw away this chance for happiness and make a mess of things.

   Which is when the twists and turns come in and things get interesting.

   I won’t reveal anything from here on out, except to note that Tension proves to be a very apt title indeed. Barry Sullivan and William Conrad make an intriguing pair of homicide cops, especially as Sullivan seems more interested in putting the make on Audrey Totter than anything else. Writers Rivkin and Klorer provide a fair share of dramatic surprises, and director Berry maintains the atmosphere without sacrificing pace.

   I should also add that a few minutes after THE END flashes on the screen and you smile with satisfaction, you may find yourself saying, “Hey, wait a minute; why did….?” Or “How come they didn’t…?” I know I did. But on looking back a third time I had to admit it all makes for engrossing viewing even when logic takes a holiday.

CRIME, INC. PRC, 1945. Leo Carrillo, Tom Neal, Martha Tilton, Lionel Atwill, Grant Mitchell, Sheldon Leonard, Harry Shannon, Danny Morton, Virginia Vale. Director: Lew Landers.

   Some reviewers believe this to be one of bottom-rung studio PRC’s better efforts, and while this may be true, it doesn’t mean that it’s very good. The plot is perfunctory at best, and while viewers in 1945 may have enjoyed watching Martha Tilton sing, the songs do nothing to hold the rest of the story together, nothing more than an out-and-out crime film, some scenes of which are filmed in a nightclub.

   While Leo Carrillo gets top billing as a mid-level higher-up in a local crime syndicate, this is really Tom Neal’s movie, from beginning to end. He plays a brash young reporter (the only other kind in movies like this are the old embittered ones) who gets an edge on the police by befriending an upwardly mobile gangster (Danny Morton) who is making enemies of the gang currently in power.

   It may or may not be relevant that Martha Tilton plays the latter’s sister, so she gets to have more lines to say than in some of the other movies she was in. She acquits herself well, but then again so do most of the other players, most of them long-time veterans of movies like this. It’s only too bad they didn’t have better lines to say.


BAD BLOOD. Made for TV, UK, 1981. Southern Pictures / Kerridge Odeon, New Zealand, 1982. Jack Thompson, Carol Burns, Denis Lill, Donna Akersten, Martyn Sanderson, Kelly Johnson, Bruce Allpress. Based upon the book Manhunt: The Story of Stanley Graham, by H. A. Willis (Whitcoulls, 1979). Director: Mike Newell.

    Bad Blood opens with a telling scene that, in retrospect, tells the viewer a lot about how the story is going to unfold. In a small New Zealand farming community, the community men aim their rifles and fire at targets. The Second World War is on and the local, God-fearing, upstanding townsfolk are preparing to do their part (if called upon) to fight alongside Britain and against the Germans.

   Notably absent from the rather giddy group of would-be soldiers is Stan Graham, a local oddball who, along with his wife and kids, live on a small homestead in town. From the get go, the viewer learns two things: rifles are going to play significant roles in the narrative and that Graham is an outsider.

   Not surprisingly, guns and outsiders do not go well together, at least they don’t in director Mike Newell’s cinematic exploration of the life and times of real life New Zealand mass murderer Stan Graham (1900-1941).

   Portrayed with a combination of pathos and unbridled rage by Australian leading man Jack Thompson, Graham is an antisocial sort, a man consumed by bitterness whose devotion to his firearms leads to a catastrophic confrontation with local law enforcement. This triggers a large-scale manhunt in which Graham is finally captured. But not before killing more men who he blames for his failing farm.

   It’s a story that is once particular to a certain time and place in Depression-era western New Zealand and also easily transferable to any rural farming community that divides people into insiders and outsiders. Graham, as depicted in the film, is a paranoid man, so completely consumed by hate that it’s difficult to identify with him.

   And yet, we also get the sense that Graham’s financial failures and isolation are also due in part to a rather rigid community, one so caught up in the ways of propriety that they can’t stand the presence of the rude, uncouth Graham family in their presence. The real life Graham was surely a mass murderer and a villain, a man responsible for taking many lives, but the Graham portrayed on screen is a bit more nuanced. He’s something approaching an anti-hero, but not quite.

   He’s almost an anarchic figure whose refusal to conform leads to unspeakable tragedy for a close-knit community. Still at the end of the day, Graham is responsible for his own actions. After watching Bad Blood, it struck me just how subtle the director’s approach was. Without any sensationalism or over-moralizing, this New Zealand classic tells a “rural noir” story and lets the viewer wrestle with the uncomfortable implications.


THE GOLDEN SALAMANDER. General Film Distributors, UK, 1950. Eagle-Lion Classics, US, 1951. Trevor Howard, Anouk, Herbert Lom, Walter Rilla, Miles Malleson, Jacques Sernas, Wilfrid Hyde-White. Based on the book by Victor Canning. Director: Ronald Neame.

   Despite the occasionally languid pacing, The Golden Salamander is overall an enjoyably cerebral British thriller. Directed by Ronald Neame, the movie features Trevor Howard as David Redfern, an English archaeologist dispatched to Tunisia to recover Etruscan antiquities and bring them back to the United Kingdom. While in the exotic confines of North Africa, Redfern stumbles both into love with Anna, a local French girl (Anouk Ameee) and upon a criminal gun running enterprise.

   Much of the film deals with the ethical question of what is a man’s responsibility in the face of evil. Indeed, the titular golden salamander, albeit not a live one, has a prominent role in the movie. One of the antiquities Redfern (Howard) is meant to transport back to England is a statue of a salamander, and on the statue’s base is engraved a Greek aphorism about the necessity of not turning one’s eyes away from evil.

   This has an indelible impact on Redfern’s psyche. It propels him into a life-altering decision. He’s simply not going to pretend that he isn’t aware of the illicit gun running taking place around him. Rather, he’s going to confront it head on, danger be damned. This course of action will affect not just him, however. It will also impact the burgeoning romantic relationship between him and Anna.

   He’s also going to have to physically take on the cartel’s enforcer, a thuggish man by the name of Rankl (Herbert Lom). Corruption and murder envelop the couple as they make their way in and out of danger, ultimately forcing a showdown with the head of the crime syndicate whose identity may or may not surprise you.

   Although packaged as part of a Kino Classics British Noir box set, The Golden Salamander isn’t really what one would think typically think of as a film noir. There’s really no doomed protagonist and the setting is a small village in Tunisia and not the post-war neon-lit American urban landscape. It’s simply a darn good British crime film/thriller, one that’s by no means a classic, but is nevertheless worth your time.

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