Crime Films


REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


DIAL 1119. MGM, 1950. Marshall Thompson, Virginia Field, Andrea King, Sam Levene, Leon Ames, Keefe Brasselle, Richard Rober, James Bell, William Conrad. Director: Gerald Mayer.

   There are a few things about Dial 1119 that make it particularly unique. Most noticeably, the film is largely bereft of any music, background or otherwise, giving it a rather somber, claustrophobic atmosphere. Which is fitting given the film is about an escaped murderer named Gunther Wyckoff (Marshall Thompson) holding a ragtag group hostage at a neon-lit watering hole.

   The sensibility is pure noir, as one cannot help but feel the undercurrent of despair and hopelessness. Lurking in the background are the aftereffects of the Second World War and its impact on postwar American society.

   Also adding to the film’s uniqueness are two additional elements that, in my estimation, work in its favor.

   First, the cast largely consists of actors and actresses who weren’t top billed names in the business. Crime film fanatics will surely appreciate Sam Levene and William Conrad. But neither of them is present in the movie for very long. Instead, the focus is really front and center on Marshall Thompson, who you may recognize from the sci-fi classic, It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958). Trust me when I say that he’s very good in this and plays his part to the hilt. There’s something about his expressionless face that makes his character particularly memorable.

   Second, the film serves as a seething and prescient indictment of news media saturation in which tragic events are transformed into spectator sports designed for mass public consumption. Like many of the best crime films, Dial 1119 tells us as much about the society that produced the criminal as the criminal himself.

   Overall, Dial 1119 is worth a look. I didn’t know all that much about the movie going in, but after watching it, I can easily imagine myself returning for a second viewing sometime in the years ahead.

Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:


  CRY DANGER. RKO, 1951. Dick Powell, Rhonda Fleming, Richard Erdman, William Conrad, Regis Toomey, Jean Porter and Jay Adler. Written by William Bowers and Jerome Cady. Directed by Robert Parrish.

   A tight, fast-moving and witty noir, done by folks who knew how to do it.

   Dick Powell stars as Rocky Mulloy, just released after five years in prison for an armed robbery he didn’t do, freed when his alibi is belatedly substantiated by the rather suspect testimony of ex-Marine Delong (Erdman.) Actually, Delong thinks he’s guilty, but he’s angling to cut himself in for a share of the $100,000 still missing from the robbery.

   Also involved, in ascending order of importance, are Regis Toomey as Cobb, a dull cop who still thinks Rocky’s guilty but figures he can shake things up by tailing him around town; Castro (William Conrad) the Gang Boss who engineered the heist but kept his hands clean, and Rhonda Fleming as Nancy, an ex-love of Rocky’s now married to his buddy Danny, who is still serving time for the caper.

   Now that he’s out, Rocky hopes to clear his own name and that of his friend Danny, and maybe even get a cut of the loot to repay himself for the five years in stir. To this end, he and his new friend Delong move into a trailer court — a wonderful blend of location and studio work that seems really tacky in the way only a 1950s trailer court could — as a base for their operations while Rocky begins following up the loose ends left dangling for five years: the widow of the Security Guard who identified him, Castro’s involvement, and just how innocent his old buddy Danny really was.

   By this time in his career, Powell had mastered the cool, hard-boiled, faintly mocking persona that had been his stock-in-Spade since Murder My Sweet (1944) and Writer Bowers (Criss-Cross, The Web, The Law and Jake Wade, etc.) gives him plenty of laconic dialogue to deal out, which he does with perfect deadpan comic timing.

   There’s some debate over whether this was directed by Parrish or Powell — both have some fine films to their credit — but whoever did it captured a nice feel for that post-war early 1950s ambiance, evoking atmosphere without letting the pace flag for a minute. Additionally, Cry Danger achieves a moment of some depth and emotional complexity, which I’ll preface with a

SPOILER ALERT! It will come as small surprise to noir buffs that Nancy turns out to be playing a double game, hoping to keep the loot and get Rocky back into her larcenous arms, but we get a nifty spin on it here when Rocky uses her love for him to get her to betray herself. All through the scene we can see him leading her on and hating himself for it, see him crushing his feelings under his own heel, and finally walking away, officially innocent, free and very alone. A fine and unusual moment, written and played to perfection. END OF SPOILER ALERT.

   Along the way to this remarkable ending we get a full quota of twists, turns, rough stuff and the kind of tough guys and deadly dames they just don’t make anymore — if they ever did.

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:


CRACKERJACK. General Film Distributors, UK, 1938. Released in the US as The Man with 100 Faces. Tom Walls, Lili Palmer, Noel Madison, Leon M. Lion, Edmond Breon. Screenplay A.R. Rawlinson; adaptation by Basil Mason Based on the novel by W. B. N. Ferguson Directed by Albert de Courville.

   Crackerjack is a fast-paced British comedy mystery replete with a mysterious monocled gentleman thief (the Crackerjack of the title: “Don’t think because I wear this eyeglass I won’t drop you,” he warns a roomful of criminals he holds at gunpoint), a beautiful Baroness who used to be a spy, and a dancing and singing troupe of airborne hold up-men, complete with two musical numbers. I honestly can’t think what more you could want from a thirties British film.

   The film opens as Sculpie (Noel Madison) and his gang pull a daring daylight robbery of a millionaire diamond merchant on a plane. On board the plane is monocled Jack Drake (Tom Walls), a droll type who calmly decks a Scotland Yard man to save him from Sculpie. When Sculpie and his pals drop the passengers off though and take off with the plane they soon find they have an empty case, no swag, and someone else has the diamonds.

   The someone else is Crackerjack, Jack Drake, who has turned Robin Hood to finance his charitable work when his own fortune dwindled from too many good deeds. He even writes a bestselling book about himself that sets London on its ear, but when the hospital he financed needs money and his bank draft overages press it is time for Crackerjack to strike again, this time in London where his one time inamorata, Baroness Von Halz (Lili Palmer), is visiting and would like nothing more than to see the man who left her waiting in Berlin (not knowing he and his secretary barely escaped the police), but for whom she still has feelings.

   Crackerjack strikes again at an elegant ball (“Today I endow an crib, tomorrow I crack one.”), and again Sculpie and gang hit the same target and come up short, this time killing a man; something Crackerjack won’t tolerate. Meanwhile Baroness Von Halz old friend Golding (Leon M. Lion) tells her he lost a family heirloom to Crackerjack at the ball and asks her aid as a one time German spy in contacting Crackerjack. If he can catch him in the act, maybe he can persuade him to return the heirloom.

   Little does the Baroness know that Golding is the fence for Sculpie’s gang and the trap is a deadly one or that her beloved Jack Drake is Crackerjack. She sets up the meeting with Crackerjack who remains hidden and arranges for him to steal some papers she claims she is being blackmailed with.

   Drake knows it is a setup (“I’ll do anything for you,” he tells the Baroness, “but drop my ‘aitches.”), but he can’t resist heisting all the goodies the gang stole and betraying them to the friendly policeman he saved on the plane, who having recovered most of the loot from the theft of the ball and captured the murderers could care less if Crackerjack gets away.

   Walls, seems an odd choice for hero, and it is more than a bit difficult to imagine that the young and lovely Palmer is head over heels in love with him. For one thing he is middle aged, balding, has a huge beak of a nose, no chin, jowls, and a silly ass upper class English twit manner better suited to Bertie Wooster than Simon Templar — in fact he wouldn’t be a terrible Peter Wimsey — but the film is so good-natured, short, fast paced, and often clever you quickly warm to its hero, or at least don’t mind him too much.

   I know nothing sbout Walls, but assume he was a popular stage or music hall star, since the film seems designed to exploit his persona. Palmer, on the other hand, is young and beautiful, and the scenes with her show her off to great advantage, even if she hasn’t a lot to do but look decorative. Noel Madison was usually cast as American gangsters in British films and plays a variation of that here in a Jack LaRue, Marc Lawrence, Joseph Calleia key.

   Droll, rapid-paced, relatively clever sub-Saintly stuff with a minor league gentleman thief in the Raffles/Lupin/Baron vein, Crackerjack is an attractive, sprightly, witty, little distraction that leaves a much better taste behind than you might expect it to when it starts. It also helps there is no moralizing or preaching here. It isn’t giving anything away to say the hero gets the girl and the swag and flies away with both, nose firmly thumbed to propriety, Hollywood’s Code, and any and all dull moralists watching.

   Considering that it came as a total surprise that I stumbled upon quite by accident, having never heard of the film or the book it is based on I could not be more pleased with the result.

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THE KILLER IS LOOSE. United Artists, 1956. Joseph Cotten, Rhonda Fleming, Wendell Corey, Alan Hale Jr., Michael Pate, John Larch, Dee J. Thompson. Based on a novelette by John & Ward Hawkins (The Saturday Evening Post, 13 June 1953). Director: Budd Boetticher.

   A more or less straight forward crime suspense thriller, with a remarkable performance by Wendell Corey as an escpaed convict obsessed with killing the wife (Rhonda Fleming) of the cop (Joseph Cotten) who mistakenly killed his wife while tracking him (Corey) down as part of a robbery, an inside job, at the bank where he previously was only a mild-mannered teller.

   I wasn’t sure that I could do it, but it looks as though I managed to get almost the entire plot summarized in one paragraph. One thing I decided not to squeeze in, though, was the fact that Cotten’s wife is after him to quit the police department and get a job a lot less dangerous. The irony, of course, is that she’s the target, and Cotten does his darnedest to protect her, while at the same time keeping her from finding out.

   There are a few awkward — no, make that contrived — moments that weaken the story, such as having the wives of the two policemen who nabbed Corey there in the courtroom when he’s found guilty, and having him confront the two couples afterward. Just a little shortcut in storytelling, that’s all, but for a moment, it was jarring.

   The final scene is almost predictable from the moment you see Corey make his escape. But what makes it suspenseful anyway is that Corey, almost blind without his thick glasses, kills three people, some in shocking fashion. You’re sure everything will work out right in the end, but in hands of someone like director Budd Boetticher, you’re just never really sure.

Jon and I watched this movie last night, the original, the one with with Martin Balsam, Robert Shaw and Walter Matthau, not either of the two remakes. The movie probably doesn’t need one more review, but here’s the music that plays over the opening credits:

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


FORT APACHE, THE BRONX. Time-Life/20th Century Fox, 1981. Paul Newman, Edward Asner, Ken Wahl, Danny Aiello, Rachel Ticotin, Pam Grier, Kathleen Beller. Screenplay: Heywood Gould, suggested by the experiences of Thomas Mulhearn and Pete Tessitore. Director: Daniel Petrie.

   I would venture that Fort Apache, The Bronx is one of those movies that elicits either strong positive or negative reactions, with few observers taking a neutral position on this gritty police procedural. Part of it, I suppose, concerns the subject matter; namely, the NYPD and its efforts (or lack thereof) to police the decaying, drug-infested, burnt-out South Bronx in late 1970s/early 1980s.

   The other aspect that likely provokes strong reactions is the fact that Fort Apache, The Bronx is less a plot-driven story than it is a character study of a middle aged cop trying to find meaning both personal and professional life. Indeed, the movie veers from crime film to romantic drama in the blink of an eye and then back again to crime film, often leaving the viewer less that surefooted as to where the movie is headed and what’s coming up next: more personal drama or a nasty, violent sequence showing the utter depravity of the criminal element in one of (at the time) New York’s roughest neighborhoods.

   Count me in the (all things considered) strongly positive camp, albeit with some caveats.

    Fort Apache, The Bronx was not directed by a well-known auteur and it certainly doesn’t have the same emotional punch as the grindhouse classic, Death Wish (1974), let alone Martin Scorsese’s brilliantly bleak Taxi Driver (1976), gritty New York films both.

   It does, however, have some exceptional standout performances by not only leading man Paul Newman, but also by supporting cast members Ken Wahl, Ed Asner, and Pam Grier.

   Newman, a fine actor more than capable of taking on demanding roles, portrays Murphy, a cynical, world-weary middle-aged cop stationed in the South Bronx. The precinct house, his real home, is nicknamed “Fort Apache” signifying that the station is less akin to a “normal” police station and more like a Western cavalry outpost in hostile Indian territory. Unfortunately, it’s a theme that doesn’t get played up as much as it might have.

   The plot basics: After a strung-out prostitute named Charlotte (Grier) murders two cops in broad daylight, Murphy and his young partner, Corelli (Wahl) are tasked by their new by-the-book boss (Asner) with rooting out the criminal element from the neighborhood and shaking them down for information on the cop killer. Little do the cops know that the killer isn’t a male suspect; rather that it’s the devilishly sociopathic hooker who has been responsible for an entire series of seemingly senseless grisly slayings. Complicating matters for the mismatched duo is endemic police corruption, the local heroin trade, and Murphy’s burgeoning romance with an emergency room nurse.

   Eventually, all the various subplots come together, some neatly and others not so comprehensively. All of this may give some viewers a sense of incompleteness, as if the various strands were never adequately resolved. But that, in my estimation, was the whole point of the film. Police work, especially in a beleaguered neighborhood in a dying part of town, is never really going to provide its participants with a total sense of closure.

   Overall, Fort Apache, The Bronx is a solid piece of filmmaking. Largely filmed on location, what the movie lacks in imagination, it more than makes up with stark images of decay and dilapidation. There’s one scene in particular, located toward the end of the movie that remains etched in my mind. Murphy (Newman) is walking alone on the sidewalk just below the elevated subway tracks. In the context of what has recently happened to his character, it’s a beautifully haunting scene begging the question as to what possible impact a solitary man can have in the midst of such sadness and disorder.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


HOUSE OF 1,000 DOLLS American International Pictures, 1968. Originally released in Spain as La casa de las mil muñecas, 1967. Vincent Price, Martha Hyer and George Nader. Written and produced by Harry Alan Towers. Directed by Jeremy Summers.

   You know a movie’s in trouble when the hero of the piece gets third billing. You know it’s really desperate trouble when that billing reads “George Nader,” an interesting man perhaps, but never the most electrifying of actors.

   Actually, House of 1,000 Dolls has a few stylistic flourishes that make it just about worthwhile. It’ll never make anyone’s “10 Best” list, but it’s an okay time-killer if you’re in the mood.

   Vincent Price and Martha Hyer play traveling magicians in the employ of a shadowy figure known only as “The King of Hearts” using their act to lure beautiful women into sexual slavery in a Tangiers Brothel. This not only gives Price a chance to strut about in cape and top hat, looking regally sinister, but also gives writer/producer Towers ample opportunity to show lotsa young ladies running around in their undies, a win-win situation if ever there was one.

   I have to confess that I’ve only come across one real-life “white slavery” operation and it was a pretty tatty affair involving a few rather unattractive and not-very-bright young ladies (not all of them white, for that matter) held in the thrall (and ratty apartment) of a rather unpleasant and not-very-bright old guy. So maybe I don’t have a sound basis for comparison, but it seems to me that House not only sanitizes the concept but positively glamorizes it.

   In this film the women are all beautiful, the brothel lavish and well-staffed, and the operations positively baroque; one slave is actually delivered to the villains in an ornate coffin transported by a hearse, which strikes me as a lot of overhead for an enterprise like this.

   In keeping with the spirit, Price and Hyer do their act in the finest nightclubs, travel in style and employ a seemingly limitless army of black-clad nasty guys who travel in pairs and prove completely unequal to the task of eliminating George Nader.

   Ah yes: George Nader. It seems he’s a forensic examiner for the NYPD and this makes him an expert in all sorts of crime-fighting, following clues, trailing suspects, wise-cracking at the expense of local cops and bashing about a bit when the occasion calls for it. Yes, of course it does.

   Well you don’t go to a movie like this for stark realism, and I’m happy to say that House of 1,000 Dolls doesn’t bother with any. There’s a fairly rudimentary plot about George’s wife getting enlisted in the brothel’s Ladies Auxiliary, some mystery about who The King of Hearts will turn out to be, a few fights, chases, murders and a slave-girl revolt (are there echoes of Spartacus here?) all handled passably, sometimes stylishly… but somehow never memorably. This is a film you will soon forget, but it’s painless and sporadically fun to watch.

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