Crime Films


UNDERTOW. Universal International, 1949. Scott Brady, John Russell, Dorothy Hart, Peggy Dow, Bruce Bennett. Director: William Castle

   Truthfully, I didn’t know what to expect from Undertow, but having just watched this lesser-known crime film I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed it and would recommend it for those who haven’t yet had the occasion to see it. Directed by William Castle, who is better known these days for his work in the schlock horror genre, Undertow is very much in line with the late 1940s “film noir” aesthetic. Set primarily in the urban jungle of Chicago, the movie has gambling, a femme fatale, betrayal, coincidence, a protagonist framed for a crime he didn’t commit, a renegade cop working to clear an innocent man’s name. You get the picture.

   The plot. Without giving too much away, here are the basics: Tony Reagan (Scott Brady) is an ex-GI who used to work for Big Jim, a Chicago mob boss. But Reagan now wants to go straight and work in the legitimate real estate business in Nevada.

   Before he can do that, though, he needs to settle matters with Big Jim and, more importantly, with his fiancée who just happens to be Big Jim’s niece. Before he can do so, Big Jim ends up murdered, and Tony, who is framed for reasons that become clearer over time, is the police department’s primary suspect.

   Although it’s not a classic, Undertow perfectly captures the same sense of post-war urban paranoia and social isolation as do other similar films noir and programmers released in the late 1940s. There’s that creeping sense that, although Tony Reagan has made some bad life choices, what has happened to him could happen to any one of us. This Kafkaesque dread is best exemplified by a stunningly effective scene in which Reagan darts around a concrete and steel Chicago “L” station in the desperate hope that he can outrun the cops who are hot on his trail.


THE MECHANIC. United Artists, 1972. Charles Bronson, Jan-Michael Vincent, Keenan Wynn, Jill Ireland, Linda Ridgeway, Frank DeKova. Director: Michael Winner.

   For the first sixteen minutes, there is no dialogue. None. Just a sequence in which we see Charles Bronson or, more accurately, a character portrayed by him, plan and execute an assassination of an older man living in a rundown Los Angeles hotel room. But there’s music accompanying the action, a score composed by Jerry Fielding. Unfortunately, the music overwhelms everything else, making it more obtrusive than artistic.

   In many ways, this initial sequence is indicative of the film as a whole. It tries to be artistic and deep, but fails nearly on every level. And the overwhelming, out of place soundtrack doesn’t help matters, either.

   Now, some may see this criticism as overly harsh. After all, what’s not to like about the pairing of Charles Bronson and a youthful Jan-Michael Vincent as a skilled hitman and his apprentice? Both are good actors for the genre, and there’s actually some personal chemistry between the two (an earlier version of the script apparently hinted at a forbidden romance between these two men who live outside societal norms).

   But it’s not the acting, nor the script per se that makes this a rather dreary affair. It’s the fact that The Mechanic tries so hard, so very hard, to say something profound about what it must be like to be a hitman that it verges into self-parody. Bronson’s character, the titular mechanic, is a brooding, philosophical sort who lives alone in a giant Hollywood Hills home and who has a penchant for martial arts and seemingly little connections with other people, aside from a girlfriend portrayed by Bronson’s wife Jill Ireland. By trying too hard to make a statement, The Mechanic ends up saying very little.


HE WALKED BY NIGHT. Eagle-Lion Films, 1948. Richard Basehart, Scott Brady, Roy Roberts, Whit Bissell, James Cardwell, Jack Webb. Director: Alfred L. Werker, with Anthony Mann (uncredited).

   He Walked by Night was one of those movies that I knew existed and had always intended to watch. But for some reason, I never seemed to get around to doing so. Until now, that is. The verdict is mixed. On the one hand, there’s some excellent staging and cinematography — particularly in the last 20 minutes or so — in this true crime-inspired police procedural/film noir.

   But the story, as far as it goes, is a particularly thin one, with far less character development than one would hope for in a movie so intently focused on the ways in which a criminal eluded the police for so long.

   Richard Basehart portrays Roy Martin (alias Roy Morgan), a loner with a penchant for electronics who commits a crime spree in the greater Los Angeles area in the late 1940s.

   Among his crimes is the cold-blooded murder of a LA police officer. It’s up to the LAPD to hunt him down and bring him to justice. Leading the effort is Sgt. Marty Brennan (Scott Brady) who gets some much-needed technical assistance from a police forensics expert (Jack Webb).

   You wouldn’t know it from watching the movie, which gives next to no explanation for the crimes depicted on screen, but the backstory to the criminal portrayed by Basehart in He Walked by Night helps shed some light as to his possible motivations in carrying out his reign of burglary, robbery, and murder.

   The character of Roy Martin was based on the real life criminal exploits of Erwin “Machine Gun” Walker, a former Glendale, California, police department employee who engaged in a crime spree in LA County in 1945-46. Walker, a Cal Tech drop out who witnessed Japanese atrocities during his service in World War II, was likely traumatized by his combat experiences and the subsequent guilt he felt for surviving an attack that killed many of his fellow soldiers.

   Because of this lack of character development, the film ends up being a middling police procedural that, with a little bit of tweaking, could have been a far more formidable crime film. Still, there are enough gritty moments, particularly during the final sequence in which the LAPD hunts down Roy Martin in tunnels under Los Angeles, which should please film noir fans.


  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.

   Much has been written about The Killing, one of Stanley Kubrick’s earliest films and the template for the crime film subgenre known as the “heist film.” In many ways, the story at the heart of this crime film — a ragtag group of men planning the perfect heist of a betting track — is less important than the way in which the story is told.

   From the voiceover narration, which lends the movie a semi-documentary feel, to the reverse chronology in which certain key events in the unfolding story are depicted, Kubrick’s movie is revolutionary in the manner in which it frequently shifts the perspective from which the viewer engages with what is happening on screen.

   At first look, the movie’s protagonist/anti-hero is Sterling Hayden’s character, Johnny Clay. He’s a career criminal, once imprisoned at Alcatraz. Most significantly, he’s the brains of the whole operation to steal from a horse racetrack — an institution that is inherently suspect as it gains its money from the desperate and the downtrodden hoping to turn their money into even larger gains. (A heist film where the target was an honest, family owned restaurant, for instance, wouldn’t generate much interest, I suspect.)

   Back to Johnny Clay, both the brawn and the brains. It was his idea to gather a group of men, including an old friend (Jay C. Flippen), a corrupt policeman (Ted De Corsia) and a chess playing wrestler (Kola Kwariani) as well as an off-kilter sharpshooter (a perfectly cast Timothy Carey) to pull off the job. He’s also got men on the inside: bartender Mike O’Reilly (Joe Sawyer) and George Peatty (Elisha Cook, Jr.), a betting room teller.

   I mentioned George Peatty last for a reason, for in many respects, it is Elisha Cook’s portrayal of a downtrodden cuckold that carries the film’s story from its desperate but oddly optimistic beginning to its violently tragic, albeit humorous, climax. It’s Johnny Clay’s story that makes The Killing a crime film. It’s George Peatty’s that makes the movie a film noir.

   Some five to ten minutes into the movie (I don’t remember exactly), The Killing shifts its visual focus from Hayden’s character and the preparations for the crime to the marital squabbles between George Peatty and his witty, albeit sarcastic and emotionally abusive wife Sherry (Marie Windsor). The scene in which we see the two Peattys bicker, with Sherry hurling cruel verbal jabs at her sad sack of a husband lingers longer than one might expect.

   It’s just the two of them in an apartment bedroom, with Sherry complaining that she married George thinking that one day he’d hit it rich. He’s truly in love with her, but she has next to no respect for him — a point further highlighted when it’s revealed that she’s cheating on him with a total sleaze named Val Cannon (Vince Edwards) whom she freely tells that George is part of a scheme to rob the racetrack. George may be thinking of obtaining illicit money to keep Sherry, but Sherry is thinking of taking George’s money to keep her illicit lover.

   If this all sounds like a standard double cross scenario, it’s because it is. And it’s this melodramatic aspect to the film, when combined with Johnny Clay’s quest for the perfect heist that makes The Killing not just a crime film, but also a film noir with tragic qualities.

   What makes this Kubrick film a particularly durable work is that the behavior on display here is merely instantly recognizable aspects of human behavior enhanced for dramatic effect. Johnny is a career criminal and a cynic, and while Sterling Hayden’s character is cool and full of swagger, he’s not all that interesting.

   The same cannot be said about George (Cook in a standout role, one in which his eyes reveal the depth of his soul). He’s a weak man who wants so badly to please his wife that he’s willing to commit a felony to do so and it’s his story — from his pathetic entreaties to his wife at the very beginning to his willingness (Spoiler Alert) to cut her down in cold blood — that makes The Killing a fascinating look into human greed and urban despair.


THE DRIVER. EMI Films/20th Century Fox, 1978. Ryan O’Neal, Bruce Dern, Isabelle Adjani, Ronee Blakley. Written and directed by Walter Hill.

   Ryan O’Neal plays it cool – really cool – as the eponymous Driver in Walter Hill’s genre bending contemporary Western/crime drama. Although on the surface, The Driver is just another action movie replete with urban car chases, the movie is a multi-layered, yet subtle, re-imagining of the Western film subgenre in which a renegade lawman becomes consumed with bringing an outlaw to justice.

   Enter Bruce Dern, who is known for his seemingly effortless ability to portray unhinged characters. He portrays the Detective who relentlessly pursues the Driver, a skillful, ascetic getaway driver who has been involved in some high profile robberies in Los Angeles. Dern is actually quite effective in this role, and he chews the scenery throughout the film. There’s a goldmine of subtle dialogue sprinkled throughout the movie, much of it the Detective’s acerbic interactions with his colleagues and suspects alike.

   That brings us to the Player (Isabelle Adjani), a gambler who the Detective suspects isn’t exactly truthful about what she witnesses during a casino robbery. Much like O’Neal, Adjani plays it cool with an understated performance that somehow makes the movie even stronger than it would have been had she showed more emotion. The Player is not afraid in getting caught up in the cat-and-mouse game between the Driver and the Detective. She may be mysterious and vulnerable, but she isn’t going to be so easily intimidated by either the cops or the criminals.

   What the movie lacks in character development – seen most obviously in the lack of personal names for the main characters – it more than makes up for in skillfully filmed car chases, most of which take place without any music. Indeed, there is no fanfare to drown out the sounds of revving engines and squeaking tires. All of which serve to remind the viewer that, despite the fact that the narrative could just have easily been reworked for a gritty Western, that this is a car chase film par excellence.


MURRAY FORBES – Hollow Triumph. Ziff-Davis, hardcover, 1946. Reprinted as The Big Fake (Pyramid #97, paperback, 1953).

HOLLOW TRIUMPH. Eagle-Lion, 1948. Re-released as The Scar and The Man Who Murdered Himself. Paul Henried, Joan Bennett, Eduard Franz, Leslie Brooks, Mabel Paige and Jack Webb. Screenplay by Daniel Fuchs, based on the novel by Murray Forbes. Directed by Steve Sekely.

   Murray Forbes’ Hollow Triumph has an interesting idea for a book: Henry Mueller is a failed medical student and small-time chiseler with an over-sized ego, fresh out of prison when he discovers he bears an amazing resemblance to Viktor Bartok, a prominent psychologist. Readers of this sort of thing will figure at once that Mueller will kill Bartok and take his place, and that’s pretty much what happens, but Forbes gives it a cute twist: Mueller’s impersonation becomes a greater success than he figured on (the American Dream: if you fail at one thing, re-invent yourself as something else) and as time passes, he wins even greater fortune and honor… and he can’t stand the fact that the murdered man is getting all the credit for his killer’s work: Mueller rubbed out Bartok, but it was Mueller who got erased, and his overweening pride leads him to….

   It’s a clever thought, and somebody should write a book about it someday; Murray Forbes just didn’t seem too interested. Time and again he just tells us about things when he should be showing them. So we get lines like “She felt suspicious,” or “He was scared,” which ain’t exactly deathless prose. There are even points where Forbes seems to lose interest entirely, and instead of story-telling, he resorts to synopsis, resulting in passages like, “He went to New York to receive the honor, then came back and continued work with his patients…”

   I kept reading, but I’m not sure why.

   Fans of Old Time Radio may recall Murray Forbes as an actor on Ma Perkins and other programs, but this was his only novel, and in 1948 the Movies bought it, discarded most of the plot, noired up the rest, and released it under the original title and as The Scar, then as The Man Who Murdered Himself, creating an identity crisis to equal its protagonist’s.

   Joan Bennett is quite good here in a softer role than usual, but Paul Henreid’s acting, like Forbes’ writing, is just perfunctory. On the other hand, there’s fine photography by John Alton, and Daniel Fuchs’ script makes intelligent use of a plot twist that would have been a facile punch-line in lesser hands.

   Triumph/Scar/Murdered starts off with Henried/Mueller getting out of jail and leads quickly into a heist of a gambling joint (not in the book) that goes suspensefully wrong, leaving our antihero on the run from gangsters and hiding out in L.A. Things get tight when he’s spotted by the hoods, but when Mueller makes the switch with Bartok they get even tighter as he finds Bartok has a messy personal life, a grasping girlfriend… and is in debt to the Mob.

   It’s all done in suitably noir style, but without the artistry that distinguishes films like Night and the City or Out of the Past. Director Steve Sekely had his moments (mostly marginal ones in B movies), and he doesn’t spoil this one, but he never gives it the subversive energy that marks the classics of the genre.

   Fortunately Daniel Fuchs’ screenplay provides some unexpected highlights: Even when the leads fail to convince, the minor characters surprise us with quirky moments we weren’t expecting: A garage attendant starts dancing, a dentist turns loquacious, and a lowly scrubwoman proves to be the most perceptive character in the film.

   The marginal virtues aren’t enough to completely redeem The Scar, but I’ll remember it a little longer for them….

BANK SHOT. United Artists, 1974. George C. Scott (as Walter Upjohn Ballentine), Joanna Cassidy, Sorrell Booke, G. Wood, Clifton James, Bob Balaban, Bibi Osterwald, Frank McRae, Don Calfa. Based on the novel by Donald E. Westlake. Director: Gower Champion.

   The names have been changed to protect … who? In the book the leader of a hapless gang of crooks who try to rob a bank by stealing the whole bank is named John Dortmunder, whose exploits filled the pages of several of Donald Westlake’s comic crime novels, with emphasis on the “comic.”

   Why he becomes Walter Upjohn Ballentine in the movie is a mystery to me, one that I’m hoping that someone reading this will come along and explain.

   And while you’re at it, tell me why someone thought George C. Scott has any business playing Dortmunder. I just don’t see it, even with the bushiest caterpillar eyebrows you’ve ever seen on a big time movie star.

   Let me explain about the bank. It’s only a temporary one — a trailer filled with guards overnight, but just begging to be put on wheels and towed away. The movie was intended to be a comedy, but I found myself very quietly not laughing almost all the way through. I permitted myself a few smiles now and again — Scott is a very good actor, and while I don’t believe he did comedies very often, once in a while the perpetrators of this movie came up with a scene that worked.

   See this for the presence of brassy redhead Joanna Cassidy, whose character is financing the deal and who is (unaccountably) madly in lust with Walter Upjohn Ballentine. The rest of the cast, a motley crew at best, I could easily have done without.


SLEEPING CAR TO TRIESTE. General Films, UK, 1948; Eagle-Lion, US, 1949. Jean Kent, Albert Leiven, Derek de Marney, Paul Dupuis, David Tomlinson, Alan Wheatley, Rona Anderson, Finlay Currie, Bonar Colleano, Zena Marshall, Grégorie Aslan, Hugh Burden. Screenplay by Allan MacKinnon from a story by Clifford Grey. Directed by John Paddy Carstairs.

   An excellent spy story set on a train (and the famed Orient Express at that), a setting I can never resist, with a top notch cast, and an involving and cannily observed Ship of Fools style script and cast.

   The film opens as suave adventurer Captain Zurta (Albert Leiven), in white tie and tails, robs an embassy safe in Paris during an embassy ball, cold-bloodedly kills a waiter who interrupts him, passes the diary he steals on to his associate Karl (Alan Wheatley) waiting outside, and rejoins his beautiful companion Valya (Jean Kent) to leave before they are discovered. Things start to go wrong though, when the next morning the two go to collect the diary and find Karl has double crossed them and fled to sell it on his own, catching the Simplon Orient Express (*) for Venice and Trieste (then a ‘free’ city between East and West whose very name suggested intrigue) and beyond to Zagreb and Istanbul.

   The urgency of catching up with Karl, traveling as Charles Poole expatriate Englishman, is demonstrated by Zurta’s own admission: “Beyond Trieste I’m a wanted man. Beyond Trieste I am dead.”

   Zurta and Valya just catch the train and it’s Grand Hotel of passengers, one of which is their quarry.

   Aboard the train is married divorce lawyer George Grant (Derek de Marney) and the innocent young women he is taking for an illicit holiday Joan Maxted (Rona Anderson); comic Englishman, and former client of Grant’s, Tom Bishop (David Tomlinson); skirt chasing American soldier Sgt. West (Bonar Colleano) and sharing his compartment a bird enthusiast who won’t shut up; a pair of beautiful French girls returning from a shopping holiday in Paris and leaving boxes of hats with all the men on the train to avoid the customs fees; train chef Poirier (Grégorie Aslan) saddled with an English son of one of the line’s board members who wants to learn to cook but thinks boiled cod and chips is a delicacy; and just Poole’s luck, the last minute companion in his compartment, Inspector Joif (Paul Dupuis) of the Paris police, hero of the resistance, and something of a French Sherlock Holmes.

   That sets off the game of musical compartments as Poole tries to get a compartment by himself, briefly succeeds, hiding the diary in the new one, then finds himself ejected as famous and penurious and vain international author McBain (Finlay Currie) and his abused secretary Mills (Hugh Burden) occupy the compartment.

   But they are only on the train until Trieste where Poole can get it back if he can find a place to stay away from Joif and the two hunting him, which is how he stumbles of the illicit lovers at lunch as they try to avoid the obnoxious Mr. Bishop who is a notorious gossip and determined to organize a poker game with Grant, who has other things on his mind.

   And when Zurta kills Poole and frames Grant only to find the diary is missing, all the differing threads begin to come together.

   Screenwriter Allan MacKinnon was not only a first class writer of film thrillers, but a top notch thriller writer in his own right (Cormorant Isle) often compared to Victor Canning and Geoffrey Household (no mean company for comparison). John Paddy Carstairs was a first class British director, and the cast, while devoid of big names save perhaps Kent, is a who’s who of top British and International character actors.

   Unusually the film hasn’t really got a hero per se. Grant, as played by de Marney, is a bit of a heel all too obviously leading the girl on, and her simpering willingness to be fooled detracts from too much sympathy for her character. Bishop, played with perfect obnoxious self centered British satisfaction and obliviousness by Tomlinson (Mary Poppins Mr. Banks), will save the day, but blindly and by butting in where he isn’t wanted.

   McBain finds and tries to save the diary for himself because it will harm a country that has shunned him and his secretary Mills finds it and tries to blackmail him with it, a worm who all too easily returns to worm status. Zurta is a cold blooded killer willing to sacrifice anyone along the way with no moral or political axe but his own need for adventure and money. Valya, is a little sympathetic, but only a little so and rather ruthless herself in pursuit of her ideals. As for Jolif, he is willing to hang whoever’s neck the noose fits, rather like some real Paris policemen I knew.

   That is probably why this one is such a delight. There is no United Nations message of international cooperation like Berlin Express and no dashing hero and spunky heroine like The Lady Vanishes. The train is filled with flawed people, not evil, even Zurta and Valya aren’t evil, just human beings caught up in their own comical and tragic dramas thrown together in an artificial environment and rather savagely, but with British reserve and taste, dissected as pressure is applied. The American is a girl chasing vulgarian (“We are tired of being liberated,” a French Zena Marshall tells him pointedly); the Scotsman is cheap, cruel, vain, and petty; the Brits are all insular and judgmental; and the Europeans all seem bored and a bit rude.

   But it is all so expertly played and written that despite that you recognize the characters as humans deserving of sympathy for all their flaws depending on their varying degrees of innocence.

   Sleeping car or not, no one, certainly not the audience, gets much sleep on this trip to Trieste.

* Just a note, but I traveled on the Orient Express in the seventies, and it never looked more like just another train than here. I suppose something to do with post-war austerity in England. The gilt and red velvet (the film is in black and white, but still …) are gone; there is no sense of the gilded cigar smoking cherubs on the dining car ceiling; and the windows in the compartments only open eighteen inches, not wide like British trains of that period as shown here.

   Granted the train was not its glorious self in 1948, and not fully restored until the nineties (it wasn’t really the famed Orient Express when I rode it, not exactly, still twenty years or so from the full restoration to the glory of the great years pre-WWI and between the wars), but it was still much more cosmopolitan and less British commuter train than it appears here, a small flaw in an otherwise delightful film.


FIVE GOLDEN DRAGONS. Blansfilm, UK-Germany, 1967. Robert Cummings, Margaret Lee, Rupert Davies, Klaus Kinski, Maria Rohm, Roy Ciao Guest Cast: Dan Duryea, Brian Donlevy, Christopher Lee, George Raft, Maria Pershy. Screenplay Peter Welbeck (producer Harry Alan Towers), based on a story by Edgar Wallace. Director: Jeremy Summers.

   If producer and screenwriter (usually as Peter Welbeck) Harry Alan Towers hadn’t existed, Eric Ambler would have had to create him. Like a typical Ambler hero, Towers was a semi-disreputable, sometimes successful, and usually on the run from his creditors, figure in international cinema, whose output runs from the simply awful (Jesus Franco’s Castle of Fu Manchu) to the damn good (Face of Fu Manchu) and the great middle of not too bad (this, Coast of Skeletons). Always on the fringe of British and international film making, sometimes successfully and more often than not disastrously, Towers’ own story is probably more interesting than that in many of his shot off the cuff, high concept mediocre delivery, films.

   Here he is working with a big budget in pulp country somewhere between his two favorites Sax Rohmer and Edgar Wallace where he was always most comfortable. The setting is Hong Kong, where the international criminal syndicate known as the Five Golden Dragons are meeting — at least four of them are (Dan Duryea, Brian Donlevy, Christopher Lee, and George Raft), as yet the mysterious fifth Dragon from Hong Kong has called the meeting and has yet to show. Anyone familiar with their Edgar Wallace should recognize that set up from a mile off.

   The plot is set in motion when a mysterious man arrives in Hong Kong and is promptly tossed from the 12th floor of a plush apartment building on the Peak (Hong Kong’s prime real estate). Before he dies he leaves an envelope to be delivered to an American named Bob Mitchell staying in Hong Kong, a fact that attracts Commissioner Sanders (no accident that name I’ll wager) of the Hong Kong police (Rupert Davies in Maigret mode) and his top man Inspector Chiao (Roy Ciao) and a chain smoking effeminate killer named Gert (Klaus Kinski).

   Mitchell proves to be an aging, somewhat comic, but charmingly naif playboy (Robert Cummings) who claims he met the dead man in Manila and has no idea what the note that reads Five Golden Dragons means. That might be true, but it spooks the two beautiful women he picked up at the hotel pool, Margaret and her sister Ingrid (Maria Pershy and Maria Rohm).

   When more bodies show up in relation to Mitchell, including Margaret in his locked bedroom under a robe bearing a golden dragon, Mitchell (who variously claims to sell insurance, be a linguist, and a visitor from small town Kansas) ducks the police and goes to ground to look into things himself, led to a nightclub run by the tough Peterson (Sieghardt Rupp) and chanteuse Magda (Margaret Lee) where he stumbles onto the cave like lair of the Golden Dragons.

   Anything beyond that would be a spoiler, though there isn’t much to spoil. Five Golden Dragons is handsomely shot, there are some decent chases, at times it actually is fairly bright, and at other times it tries too hard. I enjoyed it, but if you were looking for much more than a bright colorful diversion you would be disappointed.

   Mitchell under gun point to Peterson: “I thought I’d drop in an ask you to introduce me to your boss, you know, Goldfinger number five?”

   The big four guest stars are mostly wasted, Donlevy, Raft, and Lee have virtually no dialogue, and once Maria Pershy’s Margaret is dead the feather brained Ingrid (Maria Rohm) is poor substitute though Lee provides some much needed sex appeal. The big reveal about Mitchell is no surprise by the time it comes, and the ending, telegraphed from the start, more than a bit of a let down though that, at least, might have come from an Edgar Wallace thriller, in fact it resembles The Crimson Circle more than a little in that aspect.

   On the other hand, if you want a nice tour of Hong Kong circa 1967, with attractive company, a bit of action, a touch of mystery and intrigue, and a few decent quips (“Gert, oh you mean Gertrude, is your fourth man?”) this is a harmless way to kill an hour and a half. For a Harry Alan Towers film that is practically a rave review.


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.

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