Crime Films


Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:


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.

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:


APPOINTMENT WITH DANGER. Paramount Pictures, 1950. Alan Ladd, Phyllis Calvert, Paul Stewart, Jan Sterling, Jack Webb, Stacy Harris, Henry Morgan, George J. Lewis, David Wolfe. Screenplay by Richard Breen and Warren Duff. Directed by Lewis Allen.

  “You don’t have to build up to a murder, one good try and you’re there.”

  This exceptionally well done procedural noir set against the background of a post office investigation stars Alan Ladd as postal inspector Al Goddard, a tough no-nonsense investigator with a heart of lead, who is plunged into a dangerous undercover assignment when nun Sister Augustine (Phyllis Calvert) witnesses two killers, Joe Regas and George Soderquist (Jack Webb and Henry Morgan) dump the body of Post Office investigator Harry Gruber in an alley in La Porte, Indiana.

  The case expands as Goddard has to track down the nun and once he finds her, find the man she saw and spoke to in the dark alley, Soderquist. That’s complicated because Goddard begins to have human feeling about the nun and when Regas, who fears she saw him, tries to kill her, he starts to take things personally.

  Meanwhile, following the late Gruber’s lead, Ladd is led to Paul Ferrer (Stacy Harris), a Post Office truck driver, and a heist planned by Earl Boetticher (Paul Stewart) a hotel owner, Regas, and a team hoping to exploit a million dollar hole in Post Office security during a transfer of funds in Gary, Indiana. While still searching for Soderquist, who Regas has killed in the meantime, Ladd goes undercover hoping to nail the gang for Gruber’s murder or catch them in the act.

  Jan Sterling has a nice bit as Boetticher’s none too loyal girlfriend, Dodie: “You can put strings on good women or bad women, but you can’t put strings on lazy women.” She is at once slightly off key, a little dopey, and too smart for the men around her.

  Goddard (listening to music with her in her room): So that’s ‘Slow Train to Memphis?’

  Dodie (standing near him with a lazy sway: Hmm-mmm. You like it.”

  Goddard (taking her in his arms): It’s already given me a lift.

  As the deadline for the heist closes Goddard finds himself suddenly alone and one complication after another closing his door to get out alive including when Regas, obsessed that the nun saw him, kidnaps Sister Augustine.

  Regas: You look as if you lost your best friend.

  Goddard: I’m my best friend.

  Regas: That’s what I mean.

  This is the one, of course, where future Dragnet team Webb and Morgan play a pair of killers. Morgan’s fairly short-lived as a simple minded type who Webb kills with a pair of brass booties, all he has left of the son he hasn’t seen since infancy: “Why’d you do that Joe, I thought you liked me?” he asks just before Webb finishes him off.

  You may find yourself having to suppress and inappropriate laugh at one point when Webb impersonates a cop to lure Calvert into his car, but it isn’t the fault of the film. It doesn’t help he’s named Joe either.

  Well-acted all around, with Ladd, Stewart, Sterling, Webb, and in a short bit, Morgan outstanding, a sharp script by Richard Breen and Warren Duff, good location shooting and set pieces (the scene in the handball court is often copied and expanded on), and solid if straight forward direction by Lewis Allen, Appointment With Danger, is a tough smart noir film that lets Ladd humanize believably during the course of the film without getting too sticky or sentimental. There is more than enough suspense, and Sterling has a great final scene any film noir femme fatale would kill for, as an unsentimental survivor.

  It’s not top noir, but it is well above average and moves smoothly and smartly, with good dialogue to keep the thing lubricated.

STOP ME BEFORE I KILL! Falcon/Hammer Films, UK, 1960, as The Full Treatment. Columbia Pictures, US, 1961. Claude Dauphin, Diane Cilento, Ronald Lewis, Françoise Rosay. Screenplay: Val Guest and Ronald Scott Thorn, based on the latter’s novel The Full Treatment. Director: Val Guest.

   There is a quite a bit that may be of interest to regular readers of this blog in this film, recently released as one of a box set of non-horror Hammer films. The cinematography by Gilbert Taylor is clear and crisp, in stunning black-and-white, and the performances by all are as top notch as the script will allow them to be, especially that of leading lady Diane Cilento.

   She plays the wife of a race car driver (Alan Colby, played by Ronald Lewis) who was in an auto accident on an ordinary highway while the two of them were on their honeymoon together. He’s recovered but is having (apparently) trouble in bed with her. While in France, then back to England, they call on the services of a psychiatrist named Prade (Claude Dauphin).

   The problem is more than a mere sexual dysfunction, however, and here’s where that rather title of the film comes in. What Colby also has to fight is a compulsion to kill his wife, mostly by strangulation, either manually or with whatever wire in the kitchen is handy. They also live in an apartment with, for no other apparent reason, a set of old surgical tools.

   Commenters on IMDb, some of them, have complained about the length of the movie, and suggest that it should have been shorter in order to maintain the level of suspense the producer and director of the film intended it to have. They, the commenters, are right, but the US version, the one I’ve just watched, is already missing 15 minutes from its original two hour length in the UK.

   And what’s worse, one key scene is missing, one referred to later as the shower scene, in which (apparently) the newly married couple try to make love, and can’t. The next scene, also crucial to the movie, takes place at a dinner party being held by Prade, where Colby takes serious offense at several of Prade’s jabbing and jesting remarks.

   Strangely, though, a scene in which Diane Cilento’s character is seen swimming in the nude is left intact, but filmed discreetly at a distance so as not to bother (?) the censors.

   But the major problem is that, even by cutting the film (or script) down to size, there is no real suspense. Everything is well foreshadowed in advance (is that redundant?), and the viewer’s only obligation is to fit all the pieces together as they occur into the ending that is already well established ahead of time.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:


TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. MGM/United Artists, 1985. William Petersen, Willem Dafoe, John Pankow, Debra Feuer, John Turturro, Darlanne Fluegel, Dean Stockwell. Screenplay by William Friedkin, based on the novel by Gerald Petievich. Director: William Friedkin.

   By the time To Live and Die in L.A. ended, I had lost track of the number of times characters had double-crossed one another in this neo-noir police procedural. Directed by William Friedkin, this is a visually captivating, synth-pop driven journey in Los Angeles’s back alleys and its concomitant back room dealing. From warehouses to freeways, from Beverly Hills to San Pedro, the movie presents an off kilter portrait of two Secret Service Agents pushed to the limits in their quest to take down an infamous counterfeiter.

   When Agent Richard Chance (William Petersen) learns that notorious counterfeiter Rick Masters (Willem Dafoe) is behind his partner’s murder, he decides that he’s quite literally willing to do whatever it takes to take Masters down. That means cheating, stealing, and killing. Whatever it takes.

   Soon enough, Chance has fellow Secret Service Agent Jon Vukovich (John Pankow) by his side, bending and breaking all the rules in the book. The two agents devise a scheme by which they will steal money from an illicit diamond dealer and utilize the cash to conduct their own off the book sting operation against Masters. What happens next is right out of the noir playbook. Not only does their plan go awry, it goes awry in the worst possible way. This leads Chance and Vukovich down a deadly path leading to an ultimate showdown with Masters and his henchman.

   While the plot will keep you guessing, the film isn’t necessarily a plot-driven work. Indeed, the movie is as much a visual tour of the seedy underbelly of LA as it is a crime story, with scenes and sequences amplified by soundtrack composed by the 1980s pop band Wang Chung. The opening sequence in which the President’s motorcade pulls into the Beverly Hilton, for instance, is well served by the title song, lending the movie a dramatic sense of place from the get go.

   Like the cars in the motorcade, the film is a journey into a fantastically noir vision of a counterfeiting mastermind and the men who ultimately bring him down. Look for the incredible chase sequence, one that rivals anything you’ve seen in Bullitt (1968) or The French Connection (1971). It’s a thrilling sequence in a remarkably effective and gritty crime film.

Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:


SHACK OUT ON 101, Allied Artists, 1955. Terry Moore, Frank Lovejoy, Keenan Wynn, Lee Marvin, Whit Bissell and Len Lesser. Written by Edward & Mildred Dein. Directed by Edward Dein.

   Probably the best movie made that year about commies infiltrating a diner, this is in fact a film of bewitching badness, enchanting ineptitude and the occasional good part that serves accentuate the awful rest of the thing.

   Briefly, Keenan Wynn runs the Diner; Terry Moore works there as a waitress but she’s studying to pass the Civil Service exam so she can get a good job and make her boyfriend proud of her. Said boyfriend is Frank Lovejoy as a Nuclear Scientist (!?!?) who is working on some shady deal with Slob (Lee Marvin) the short-order cook. Whit Bissell is a salesman/old army buddy of Wynn’s who hangs around to pad out the running time.

   Okay, that’s the dramatis personae. As for the plot, well there isn’t much. We quickly learn that Slob, in addition to being a boorish letch, is also a commie spy, buying secrets from Frank. Is Frank really a traitor? Will Slob attack Terry? What about the two chicken vendors who sneak around at night watching the place through binoculars? Or the nasty-looking fish-peddler appropriately named Perch who keeps passing things to Slob in buckets of fish? And will any of this ever amount to anything?

   Actually there’s a rather nice bit toward the end when Slob drops the mask and starts stalking Terry around the dark, deserted diner. But it’s a long time coming, delayed by perfunctory love scenes and stretches where everyone just seems to be killing time. The action (I use the term loosely and with tongue in cheek) stays in and around the same cheap set for the whole movie, and the comedy relief… well the less said the bitter.

   At this point you’re probably asking yourself, “So why bother?” and I have to admit that Shack Out on 101 seemed to touch some childhood chord in my memory; I remembered being a kid in the 1950s and wondering when the Bomb would drop. Hearing about the HUAC hearings and trying to figure out who in my neighborhood was a commie spy: How about my 6th grade teacher? Or the old couple with the foreign accents who ran the musty old newsstand? Could they be Foreign Agents passing secrets in innocent-looking out-of-town papers, and stuff like that?

   Shack Out taps into this collective paranoia with an engaging innocence, terrible in an enjoyable way, with a few old pros and a talented newcomer ignoring the badness and playing out their parts with straight faces and even some energy. Writer/director Dein (who helmed Curse of the Undead — the first vampire-western — and The Leech Woman, and co-wrote The Leopard Man) gets through it quickly and efficiently, and there is that odd glimmer of passable filmmaking that seems to glitter all the brighter for being mired in a film like this.

   And if the character of Perch looks familiar to you, that’s because he’s played by Len Lesser: Uncle Leo on the Seinfeld series.

ONCE A THIEF. MGM, 1965. Alain Delon, Ann-Margret, Van Heflin, Jack Palance, John Davis Chandler, Jeff Corey. Screenplay: Zekial Marko, based on his novel Scratch A Thief as by John Trinian (Ace Double F-107, 1961; Stark House, 2016). Director: Ralph Nelson.

   This better than average crime heist film came along a few years after the height of the noir era, and while truth be told, it doesn’t break any new ground, it’s well-filmed, well-acted and beautifully photographed (in black and white when they knew how to film in black and white).

   The thief in question is Alain Delon, who plays Eddie Pedak, a guy who’s done some time but is now married to Ann-Margret and has an honest job down by the San Francisco docks. He’s just made a down payment on his own boat when his nemesis, Inspector Mike Vido (Van Heflin), figures he’s the one who killed a Chinese woman in the process of robbing her small store.

   When the woman’s husband can’t identify Eddie as the killer, he’s allowed to go free, but in the meantime he’s lost his job. Ann-Margret gets a job in a local nightspot — this doesn’t go over well — and then along comes his brother Walter (Jack Palance), a hustler and small-time hoodlum with an offer Eddie, desperate for money, can’t refuse.

   A heist, in other words, and Walter needs Eddie. (I did mention, didn’t I, that not much in new ground is broken?) Heists never go as planned, but the story’s not really about the robbery. It’s about the characters, and while you can’t believe that Alan Delon and Jack Palance could ever be related, they make their roles ones they seemingly were born to play. Ann-Margret’s histrionics may go over the top a couple of times, but she managed to convince me that any mother whose young daughter is being held by a gang of sadistic thieves would react exactly the same way.

   Did I say the heist goes badly? Indeed it does.

THE HYPNOTIC EYE. Allied Artists, 1960. Jacques Bergerac, Merry Anders, Allison Hayes, Marcia Henderson, Joe Patridge, Fred Demara, Lawrence Lipton. Director: George Blair.

   The theme of this second-rank crime film — not a horror film per se, although there are some horrific scenes that take place during the course of it, but mostly offstage — is stage hypnotism. The film takes great pains to point out the beneficial results that hypnotism can produce — but at the end, with a wink, there is a warning to say in essence, don’t try this at home.

   It seems that a wave of beautiful women mutilating themselves has hit the city: attempting a facial massage with an electric fan; using a razor instead of lipstick; drinking lye instead of coffee; washing one’s hair over a gas flame instead of a sink. What could be behind these ghastly accidents?

   Det. Sgt. Dave Kennedy, played Joe Patridge, an actor previously unknown to me, doesn’t have a clue, but when his girl friend (long-haired brunette Marcia Henderson) insists they go see a stage hypnotist named Desmond (Jacques Bergerac), events start happening that even the slow-witted Kennedy can’t downplay or deny.

   The aforementioned Bergerac isn’t a great actor, but he has the eyes and voice (and French accent) of a stage magician, and if he ever had the chance to play Dracula in a film, I think he’d be remembered a lot more than he is. Allison Hayes plays his assistant on stage, but in one of her better roles, she — well, if I tell you any more then you’d know the whole story.

   The problem with this film isn’t its leaky plot devices, it’s that there just isn’t enough story to fill its running time. One long scene taking place in one of those hippie places of the early 60s, complete with Lawrence Lipton reciting a poem called “Confessions of a B Movie Addict,” accompanied by drum and acoustic bass is at least amusing. A longer scene that is probably not as long as it seems comes toward the end of the film as Desmond shows off his great powers by mass hypnotizing his entire audience.

   Pretty much pure hokum, in other words, but I would be willing to see Allison Hayes in almost anything, and if the story line doesn’t come to the level of the often noirish camera work, it isn’t Ed Wood level either.

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