Crime Films


THIEF OF HEARTS. Paramount, 1984. Steven Bauer, Barbara Wiliams, John Getz, David Caruso, and George Wendt. Written & directed by Douglas Day Stewart.

   A lush romantic fantasy dressed up as a crime film in the bright-pastel Miami Vice mode. So well done that you don’t mistake it for an actual crime film, it’s highly enjoyable on its own terms. And while I will discuss the plot in some detail here, I have to say I’m revealing no more than the original release trailer did.

   Hunky Steven Bauer, he of the chiseled face and biceps, plays a cat burglar extraordinaire, grown rich from preying on the very wealthy. So rich that he can afford a mega-warehouse apartment in San Francisco, a boat at the marina, a fancy sports car…

   You get the idea. This character is to be taken no more seriously than Raffles, Arsene Lupin, The Lone Wolf, or any of those International Jewel thieves who were once played by real luminaries like John Barrymore, Melvyn Douglas, or William Powell.

   Getting back to Bauer, though, he starts the film with a raid on an ultra-chic condo owned by John Getz and Barbara Williams, best-selling children’s book author and trendy interior designer, respectively. Writer-Director Stewart generates a certain amount of suspense here, and then…

   And then things take a turn for the Romantic. Amid the loot from the condo is a lock box containing Williams’ private journals, wherein she keeps her innermost thoughts and fantasies—for the millennials out there, that’s what folks used to do with their private thoughts and fantasies before there was Facebook.

   Anyway, Bauer reads the journals, becomes intrigued by the inner woman and sets out to seduce the outer one – a task made easier because he knows which buttons to push, and because her husband is a self-absorbed dullard. Even his publisher (a nice character part by George Wendt) says so.

   The seduction is carried out among the luxurious trappings one associates with old Ross Hunter films (All That Heaven Allows, Back Street, etc.) and if you can enjoy the long romantic scenes, the opulent music and gratuitous nudity (I could and did) time passes pleasantly till things come to a head.

   Getz (If you remember the actor as the nice red-neck bartender in Blood Simple you won’t recognize him here.) awakens to his wife’s new obsession, senses that Bauer is a phony, and sets out to investigate. At the same time, Bauer falls deep in love with Williams but finds himself emotionally crippled because he can’t open up to her. And for her part, Williams becomes increasingly put off by this man with something to hide who has invaded her life by way of her dreams.

   By now you may get the idea that this fantasy romance touches on some very real and complex emotions. It does, and it also works in some nice plot twists, as Bauer’s partner-in-crime (a very young, lean and repellant David Caruso) sees that it’s time to move on and wants to feather their retirement with one last big job: another raid on Getz and Williams’ condo.

   Which leads to a scene that actually got me a little misty, and I won’t spoil it for you. And to a full-blooded romantic conclusion I enjoyed and didn’t buy for a minute.

   Thief of Hearts is very much stuck in the 1980s, with the pounding music, artsy editing and garish décor – what Williams does by way of “decorating” Bauer’s apartment seems like a joke in the worst possible taste — but I found it easy to get around all that and love it for the Rom-Fantasy it is.

   And you might, too.


KALEIDOSCOPE. Wincast, UK / Warners, US, 1966. h Warren Beatty, Susannah York, Clive Revill, and Eric Porter. Written by Robert Carrington and Jane-Howard (Hammerstein) Carrington. Directed by Jack Smight.

   A thing of no consequence, but a diverting time-killer, this comedy-caper film in the style of Charade and Arabesque never gets really funny and seldom exciting, but radiates enough style to carry it along.

   Warren Beatty stars as Barney Lincoln, one of those characters you only see in the movies: rich, charming, virile, straight—and single. And if you can buy that, maybe you can accept the notion that he decides to cat-burgle his way into a playing-card factory and change the printing machines to mark the cards, then proceeds to tour the gambling palaces of Europe and win fortunes without getting banned and black-listed.

   He also meets his female counterpart, gorgeous, bright and single Susannah York, whose father (Clive Revill, in a charmingly eccentric characterization) is a Scotland Yard man with a use for Beatty’s talents.

   Enter Eric Porter in a splendidly over-the-top performance as Harry Dominion, master of a criminal empire, showy sadist with a Napoleonic complex and a nasty sense of humor. When he and Beatty go head-to-head, first at the card table, then at Dominion’s baroque castle, things pick up nicely for an exciting conclusion.

   “Baroque” may be the best word to describe Kaleidoscope, which came out in the midst of that mid-60s resurgence of highly-embroidered rock posters, music and neckties. Director Jack Smight, who made this in between Harper and The Secret War of Harry Frigg, fills it with artsy camera angles, rococo sets and scenery, and somebody decided to shift scenes by having the image break up into kaleidoscopic patterns — nice job, that.

   My theory is that after Dobie Gillis, Warren Beatty tried very hard to be a serious actor, and after the debacle of Mickey One, he retreated into lightweight stuff like this (originally slated to co-star Sandra Dee) and Promise Her Anything before bouncing back with Bonnie and Clyde.

   Whatever the case, everyone involved treats Kaleidoscope with the seriousness it deserves (not much) and the result is a pleasant time-killer. Nothing more, but nothing less.

THE CASE AGAINST BROOKLYN. Columbia Pictures, 1958. Darren McGavin, Maggie Hayes, Warren Stevens, Peggy McCay, Tol Avery, Emile Meyer, Nestor Paiva. based on a True Magazine article “I Broke the Brooklyn Graft Scandal” by crime reporter Ed Reid. Cinematography: Fred Jackman. Director: Paul Wendkos.

   Based on article about massive corruption in the Brooklyn Police Department in the 1950s, The Case Against Brooklyn is a little known but still impressive example of late-in-the-game film noir. Frustrated by his inability to crack down on betting gangs in the New York City borough of Brooklyn, the D.A. co-opts the entire graduating class of new police academy cadets to work undercover for him.

   One of these, older than the others, is an ex-Marine named Pete Harris (Darren McGavin), who in search of both glory and a promotion, lets his job take over his life so completely that in the end his obsession has destroyed it as well. Even though happily married at the beginning of the film, in order to work his way into the gang, he romances a new widow (Lil Polombo, played magnificently by Maggie Hayes) so well that she finds herself falling in love with him.

   Although filmed on a low budget, the story doesn’t pull any punches, except perhaps how far Pete is willing to go with his faux romance with Lil. The cast may consist entirely of low profile actors, but they are all professionals, and they know exactly what they are doing. And as in all good noir films, the action is both snappy and violent, and the photography makes good use of interesting angles as well as darkness and the light and the shadows in between. And the ending? Well nigh perfect.

   Nicely done, all around!

Added Later: Here’s Walter Albert’s take on this same movie.

         February 5.

DEATH WISH. Paramount Pictures, 1974. Charles Bronson, Hope Lange, Vincent Gardenia, Steven Keats, William Redfield, Stuart Margolin, Stephen Elliott, Kathleen Tolan. Based on the book by Brian Garfield. Director: Michael Winner. [Watched on HBO.]

   Since I’ve never read Brian Garfield’s book, I can’t hope to compare the two. It’s my opinion that movies taken from other sources have to stand on their own anyway, and in its fashion, this one definitely does.

   There is one change I know was made. In the book the nae of Charles Bronson’s character is Paul Benjamin, but in the film it’s been changed to something-Polish-sounding-that-starts-with-K [Kersey] (I don’t takes notes, and I’m not going to, so bear with me once in a while.)

   Otherwise the basic outline of the story is the same, although the message is not. A mild-mannered architect loses his wife to a muggers’ attack, and his daughter retreats into a catatonic shell. In retaliation he becomes a deadly sharp-hooting vigilante haunting the streets and subways of New York City. As he does so, he attracts a considerable amount of press coverage, and the police end up not daring to catch and arrest him if they could.

   Incidentally, and this is the only flaw in what otherwise is an ultra-realistic portrayal of a New York City no one knows — simply because they’re all huddled together behind triple-locked doors — I’ve never seen subway trains as clean as they are in this movie.

   The film is excellently done, and I have to say this even though the message rubs me the wrong way intellectually, not emotionally. It’s a movie perfectly tailored for audiences fed up with crime-on-the-streets. The NRA would love it.

   Rated R, of all the obvious reasons.


THE BIG LEBOWSKI. Polygram, 1998. Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Julianne Moore, Steve Buscemi, David Huddleston, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Tara Reid, John Turturro, Sam Elliott, Ben Gazarra, and Jon Polito. Written & directed by Joel & Ethan Coen.

ADAM BERTOCCI – Two Gentlemen of Lebowski: A Most Excellent Comedie and Tragical Romance. Simon & Schuster, trade paperback, 2010.

   Okay, so this time it’s a movie and the book inspired by it – or as Adam Bertocci would have it, the text of the play Shakespeare wrote after seeing it. Got that?

   At this point there’s really no use going into a detailed synopsis or critique of The Big Lebowkski. It’s a cult film, which means you either love it or can’t imagine why anyone would. There’s enough lawlessness, detection and mayhem to qualify it for anyone’s list of crime films, but suffused throughout with so much deliberate quirkiness that the question of Whodunit seems completely irrelevant.

   What strikes me about Lebowski though, is its compelling similarity to Robert Altman’s film of The Long Goodbye (UA/Lions Gate, 1973). Besides the obvious L.A. ambiance, both films feature protagonists seriously out of step with the world they inhabit, cast into convoluted plots which they — and we (and, I suspect, the writers) — only partly comprehend, adrift in an ocean of whackos, weirdoes and certified wing nuts, dancing with sudden death like a monkey on a high wire. Mark Rydell in Goodbye has Ben Gazarra as his counterpart in Lebowski, just as Sterling Hayden in the earlier film is mirrored by David Huiddleston in the later one. It’s as if the Coens saw Altman’s screwy classic when they were impressionable teens and never got over it.

   Like I say, there’s been enough written about this film already, but I want to make note of the pitch-perfect performances of Philip Seymour Hoffman as an unflappable toady and John Turturro doing a dead-on impression of Timothy Carey as a mad bowler. Add Steve Buscemi as the kegler equivalent of Elisha Cook Jr, and you have an able supporting cast indeed — all blown off the screen by John Goodman’s perennial Nam Vet, Walter.

   More than a decade after Lebowksi hit the screens, Adam Bertocci wondered in print what The Big Lebowski would have been like if written by the Bard of Avon. He even went so far as to write an afterword, detailing how Shakespeare might have seen someone else’s Elizabethan play of the story and stolen it (as playwrights of his time were wont to do—leading to flocks of Angry Bards) for his own Two Gentlemen of Lebowski.

   I should say up front that this will appeal mainly to those who have some familiarity with the works we call Shakespeare’s. When Sam Elliott (I forgot to mention him, didn’t I?) says “Sometimes you get the Bear” one doesn’t automatically recall the stage direction from Winter’s Tale, “Exit, pursued by a bear.” But Bertocci does.

   It will be lost on some. As will many (most?) of the other allusions. But no one should miss the author’s seriocomic “footnotes” explaining things like Cracked Cheeks (“Maps of the period depicted wind in the form of clouds blowing over the land and possibly on freshly-painted toes.”) and Haters of Jewry (“Anti-semites. In Elizabethan England, a synonym for ‘everyone’.”)

   Cult items to be sure. Take them for all in all, we most likely shall not look upon their like again. But we can hope.


HELL BOUND. United Artists / Bel-Air Productions, 1957. John Russell, June Blair, Stuart Whitman, Margo Woode. Director: William J. Hole Jr.

   Hell Bound opens with voice-over narration that tells the viewer what is going on. It’s technique familiar to all of us who have watched numerous low budget 1950s crime films and police procedurals. Where the narrator instructs us as to what is happening on the screen, as if we needed some additional help. But in this Bel-Air Production, the narration goes on and on. And on. Or so it seems. All of which leads the viewer to wonder what exactly is going on? Is the whole film going to be like this?

   But eventually the narration ends. And as it turns out, what you were watching was a 16mm film within a film. A short movie that was filmed by a thief named Jordan (John Russell) in order to “sell” his vision to a businessman who could finance his latest criminal scheme: to steal narcotics from a ship set to arrive in the Los Angeles harbor. It’s a clever device, one that immediately lets the viewer know that this isn’t going to be one just another stodgy and formulaic police procedural.

   Hell Bound is a lot grittier than what most of those films even hope to offer. It’s soaked in sweat, oozes sexual innuendo, and has its fair share of odd, unsavory characters, including a blind heroin dealer who simply goes by the name Daddy (Dehl Berti). The film has a lot of visual signposts and trademarks of what has become known as film noir. There’s a gin-soaked nightclub with an exotic dancer, neon lights, and a ruthless degree of criminal brutality. There is also a stark, but exquisitely filmed finale in a junk yard filled with old trolley cars, one of the more creative endings I’ve seen in a while.

   Look for former Playboy Playmate June Blair as Jordan’s primary accomplice, and a for youthful Stuart Whitman as an honest hardworking ambulance driver who inadvertently gets mixed up in the whole affair. Les Baxter provides the soundtrack. Recommended.


JUDAS KISS Bandeira Entertainment, 1998. Carla Gugino, Simon Baker-Denny, Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Gil Bellows, Til Schweiger, Hal Holbrook, Roscoe Lee Browne. Director: Sebastian Gutierrez.

   Any movie that starts with a blue-skinned alien lesbian getting naked is probably worth a look, and when Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman come on as sho ’nuff Looziana cops, replete with corn pone accents and Wal-Mart wardrobes, you know Judas Kiss is headed into undiscovered territory. But that’s only the beginning, folks, only the beginning…

   This movie offers more genuine flakiness than you’d find in a whole case of Post Toasties, and there’s a surprise inside: a twisty-turny kidnapping plot that develops layer on layer of deception and double-dealing, all very intelligently presented.

   I mentioned Rickman and Thompsoon, and they’re both quite good in off-beat parts, along with Roscoe Lee Browne, and Hal Holbrook as a bereaved and betrayed congressmen, but the real acting honors here go to four unknowns playing a quartet of trailer-trash crooks trying to break out of the small-tie with a high-profile kidnapping.

   And honestly, the names of these actors would mean nothing to you, but the parts are written and performed so skillfully I kept wanting to get back to them, even when the camera was on actors I liked better. Okay, the thespians in question are Carla Gugino, Simon Baker, Gil Bellows and Til Schweiger, and I hope mention in these pages rockets all four of them to stardom.

   Chalk it up to adroit writing and directing by Sebastian Gutierrez, another talent who needs to be much better known.

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


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.

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