Crime Films


REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


HIGHWAY DRAGNET. Allied Artists, 1954. Richard Conte, Joan Bennett, Wanda Hendrix, Reed Hadley, Mary Beth Hughes, Iris Adrian, Frank Jenks. Screenplay by Herb Meadow and Jerome Odlum. Director: Nathan Juran.

   It’s the cast and the filming locales that make the somewhat predictable Highway Dragnet worth watching. Produced in part by Roger Corman, this programmer is directed by Nathan Juran, who is perhaps best known for his work in the fantasy and science fiction genre.

   The movie stars Richard Conte as Jim Henry, a Korean War veteran falsely accused of the murder of a former model he meets in a Vegas bar. It’s only when he realizes that Las Vegas Police Lt. Joe White Eagle (a perfectly cast Reed Hadley) is playing for keeps that he decides to make a break for it and begins a life on the lam with the goal of finding the one man who could provide him with an unshakable alibi.

   What Henry doesn’t know is that one of the two women he has decided to hitch a ride with may actually be the real killer. Most of the movie follows Jim as he joins up with a saucy photographer (Joan Bennett) and her next top model (Wanda Hendrix) as they make their way across the Nevada border and into the sparse California desert. There’s some great scenery here and from what I can ascertain, at least a portion of the movie was indeed filmed in California’s Coachella Valley, a location now known more for its annual music festival than anything else.

   Overall, it’s a fun ride for the viewer. Conte may not have been the best actor for this specific part, but his work on screen is always generally solid and Highway Dragnet is no exception. Perhaps it was due to the film’s meager running time (71 minutes!), but one of the key plot points is given away in expositionary dialogue rather than in a cinematic form, something that detracts from the movie’s impact.

   But it’s really not worth that much complaining about. The movie works for what it was designed to do, namely to tell a story, raise the stakes, and provide a satisfactory conclusion in which the good guy clears his name and wins the girl.

TRAPPED. Eagle-Lion Films, 1949. Lloyd Bridges, Barbara Payton, John Hoyt, James Todd. Director: Richard Fleischer.

   Leading man Lloyd Bridges had been around for a while when this movie was made, but this was co-star Barbara Payton’s first credited role in a full-length film. In spite of opening in full-tilt documentary style, expounding the many jobs done by the Treasury Department, and needfully shot on a low budget, the movie definitely falls into the film noir category, and one which definitely needs to be watched by aficionados of such films — once they’ve see all of the better ones.

   It was at first difficult to see Lloyd Bridges as a villain — he’s a little too “honest looking” (if not clean cut) for that — but he was also a good enough actor that he gradually starts to make his role as the former owner of some counterfeit plates more and more believable as time goes on.

   Sprung from jail, nominally having agreed to work undercover for the Treasury Department, he pulls a fast one on them and heads straight for his old girl friend (you know who that is) and the fellow who has the plates now. There’s nothing you haven’t seen before happens from here on in, but it is well filmed and choreographed.

   No, I’ll take that back. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film before in which neither of the two primary leads appear in the last 10 to 15 minutes. (One is dead, the other is in jail. I won’t tell you which is which.)

   In the meantime it is John Hoyt (good) on the chase of James Todd (bad) in the Los Angeles Trolley Barn (very picturesque) that takes the spotlight in the long action-packed finale of this moderately entertaining crime film. Overall, better than expected, but not that much better.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


RIFF-RAFF. RKO, 1947. Pat O’Brien, Walter Slezak, Anne Jeffreys, Percy Kilbride and Jerome Cowan. Written by Martin Rackin. Directed by Ted Tetzlaff.

   I resisted watching this for weeks because I find Pat O’Brien pretty easy to resist, but when I got around to it I found myself bowled over by a film of dark beauty and considerable wit.

   Riff-Raff opens with more than six minutes of no dialogue: just fluid, suspenseful camerawork as a man with a mysterious briefcase boards a cargo plane from Peru to Panama. He doesn’t finish the trip, but his briefcase does, in possession of his killer, who soon seeks the protection of Dan Hammer (Pat O’Brien of course), Panama’s resident hard-boiled fixer. The guy with the briefcase meets a predictable fate, triggering a search for its contents, and setting the story proper in pleasing if predictable motion.

   Someone spent some time fleshing out O’Brien’s character, and it pays off. Hammer’s office is a seedy affair in a run-down building, guarded by a sleeping dog. He knows every chiseler and cop in town, and everyone in between, all this conveyed with sharp dialogue and a parade of evocative bit players doing their bits.

   Plot-wise, it’s a standard riff on The Maltese Falcon, with Walter Slezak’s effeminate fat man and his hired gunsels looking for the missing whosis, Anne Jeffreys as a beauty who isn’t all she seems , and even Falcon‘s Jerome Cowan as a double-dealer in on the game. The wonder is that Riff-Raff is done with so much style and wit, the discerning viewer won’t give a damn – just sit back and be dazzled.

   I should give a special mention to Percy Kilbride as Hammer’s side-kick, a part written & played to laid-back perfection, and one that got a few laughs out of me. There, I’ve mentioned it. And now a word about our Hero:

   For most of this film, Pat O‘Brien is just fine, in a jaded, salty way, as the kind of American who gets stuck in a seedy/exotic milieu like Panama. Think of Rick in Casablanca and you’ll get the idea, but O’Brien seems a little sweatier, sloppier, and more true to life… or as true as you can get in a movie like this.

   It’s only when the young and lovely Anne Jeffreys falls for him that the whole thing don’t work no more. More than twenty years her senior, fat and balding, he just couldn’t carry the romantic parts for me – much as I’d like to think that lovely young ladies are drawn to old bald guys like moths to the gaudy neon sign above a cheap barroom.

   No, it just doesn’t click. But it’s the only weakness of a film I enjoyed a lot, and you should too.

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


VIGILANTE FORCE. United Artists, 1976. Kris Kristofferson, Jan-Michael Vincent, Victoria Principal, Bernadette Peters, Brad Dexter, Judson Pratt, David Doyle, Antony Carbone, Andrew Stevens, Shelly Novack. Screenwriter-Director: George Armitage.

   Vigilante Force is one of those blue-collar action movies from the mid-1970s designed to appeal to a White working class demographic looking for some simple escapism and a familiar social milieu. Set in a fictional small town in California’s interior (somewhere near Bakersfield I would imagine) where newfound oil wealth is destroying the fabric of society, this film is as much about the setting as the story. That’s probably for the best, given how flimsy the plot of the movie actually is.

   Jan-Michael Vincent, before he became one of Hollywood’s hottest items, portrays Ben Arnold, a laconic working class widower living with his young daughter and new girlfriend. When the police chief of his town gets overwhelmed by the sheer amount of criminal activity taking place there due to an influx of oil workers, Ben seeks out his somewhat estranged brother Aaron (Kris Kristofferson), a Vietnam Veteran working somewhere in Southern California and convinces him to return home and to become a deputized peace officer.

   But it doesn’t take long before Ben realizes that Aaron and the men he has brought with him aren’t going to play nice with either the criminals or the townsfolk. In fact, Aaron has his own nefarious plans for his hometown, a place for which he has utter contempt.

   There’s a lot of talk, some shooting, a lot more talk with low tech dialogue, and then a final action sequence which isn’t all that spectacular. Kristofferson was a far better actor and capable of so much more than he was given in this one. As for Vincent, he’d go on to bigger and better things in the 1980s before suffering a severe career decline the following decade.

APOLOGY FOR MURDER. Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC), 1945. Ann Savage, Hugh Beaumont, Russell Hicks, Charles D. Brown. Director: Sam Newfield.

   Hugh Beaumont plays Kenny Blake, a brash young reporter, in this film, and yes, I know, that’s redundant. All young reporters in the movies have to be brash. If they are allowed to get older on the job, they either become cynical or, once in a while, even more devoted to real journalism and the truth. Especially if the latter will sell newspapers.

   Blake’s editor is the latter, which is why I bring it up, but I’m getting ahead of myself. While Blake is interviewing one of the wealthier men in town, brashly of course, he is taken by the older man’s much younger wife (Ann Savage). Realizing that her husband is getting tired of her and is about to dump divorce her and leave her nothing, she picks up on Blake’s attraction to her.

   It seems as though she has a plan, and Blake is just the fellow who can help her with it. Should I go on? Have you heard this one before?

   Would it help if I told you that the working title for this film was Single Indemnity until Paramount Pictures got wind of it and told them to cut it out? In Blake’s editor’s eagerness to pull off the scoop of the year, he does not realize until almost too late that he is nurturing a viper in his bosom. So to speak.

   Unfortunately as a leading man in this kind of film, Hugh Beaumont is rather bland, with very little personality of his own, the kind that shows up on the screen. Ann Savage’s next film was to be Detour, and while she definitely doesn’t have the kind of presence in this film she was to have in that one, you can definitely see why they might have thought of her when they were casting the part.

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


THE STONE KILLER. Columbia Pictures, 1973. Charles Bronson, Martin Balsam, Jack Colvin, Paul Koslo, Norman Fell, David Sheiner, Stuart Margolin, Ralph Waite, John Ritter. Based on the novel A Complete State of Death, by John Gardner (1969). Director: Michael Winner.

   There’s a hint, somewhere in the middle of The Stone Killer, that there might be a leak within either the LAPD or the NYPD. And there’s the suggestion, or at least I thought it was, that the film’s protagonist might have been hypnotized or even brainwashed. But neither of these cues is remotely followed up on. And you know what? It doesn’t really matter. Because for what it’s supposed to be, namely pure escapist entertainment and a gritty urban crime thriller, The Stone Killer works exceptionally well in delivering the goods.

   Not only do we get to see Charles Bronson in action, but Martin Balsam is here as well, portraying a Sicilian mob boss by the name of Al Vescari. Apparently Vescari has waited over four decades to avenge the murder of his Sicilian mafia comrades in a St. Valentine’s Day massacre type situation from the 1930s. His diabolical plot: utilize ‘stone killers,’ non-Mafia members specifically hired for the job. So he assembles a team of American military veterans to do his dirty work.

   But he’s got officer Lou Torrey (Bronson), previously a member of the New York Police Department but now in the LAPD, to contend with. Torrey doesn’t know exactly what’s in the works, but we spend most of the movie going along for the ride while he traverses the gritty side of LA and explores Southern Californian counter-cultural hot spots in the hopes of discovering what this “big hit” he learned about from a source is all about.

   The Stone Killer may not be a particularly deep movie or one that has any particular aesthetic value worthy of serious reflection. But, in its own way, it’s a fun movie that is what it is and little more. What’s important to its success is that it never tries to be anything other than an action movie. Added bonus: both Norman Fell and John Ritter, who would soon be paired together in Three’s Company, portray fellow cops working alongside Torrey.

DECOY. Monogram, 1946. (Miss) Jean Gillie, Edward Norris, Robert Armstrong, Herbert Rudley, Sheldon Leonard, Marjorie Woodworth, William Self. Screenplay by Ned Young, based on a story by Stanley Rubin, adapted from a radio play broadcast as an episode of The Whistler. Director: Jack Bernhard.

   This rather bizarre excursion into sci-fi noir is, according to some critics, the best movie that Monogram ever made. I wouldn’t go that far, but it has its moments. Based on an actual fact, though, stretched to its limit and quite a way beyond, it has to do with reviving a hardened criminal after being successfully put to death in the state of California’s notorious gas chamber. (There is a drug that is an antidote to cyanide poisoning, but no, it doesn’t work once the victim is already dead.)

   That’s the extent of the sci-fi content, and again no, that’s not why this movie has become to many a cult classic. Unavailable for many years, except as a scattering of film conventions, the real reason this movie has so many fans is its starring lady, British-born Jean Gillie, whose American debut this was. As far as femme fatales in noir film go, she is the fatalest. There is $400,000 of stolen money at stake, and she is absolutely determined to get her hands on it, no matter how many men she has to seduce and betray along the way.

   For a film made in 1946, there is a lot of violence in this film, but thinking back, most of it is not shown on camera. You may think so as you’re watching, but not so. Even so, when Monogram released the movie to TV, one scene of Margot Shelby (Gillie’s character) backing up and driving over her erstwhile boyfriend two or three times was cut so that it happens only once. Or so I’m told. This latter version is the one, alas, that’s now available on DVD, perhaps the only one in existence.

   The acting is mostly fine, the sets are solid and often extremely effective (such as the opening scene as the doctor who had previously succumbed to Gillie’s character’s charms looks in a mirror at his battered and disheveled self in a ratty gas station restroom). And the final scene, one in which Margot stays true to herself to the end, is one you will long remember.

   Trouble is, Margot is such a one-dimensional character you have to do a science-fictional “suspension of disbelief” to swallow the fact that such an amoral person could exist. Given that, as well as the cornerstone sfnal concept at the core of the film, and I think you’ll enjoy this movie as much as I did.

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:


THE ADVENTURERS. Gravity Pictures, China, 2017. Original title Xia dao lian meng. Andy Lao, Jean Reno, Zhang Jingchu, Qui Shu, Tony Yo-ning Yang, Eric Trang, Yi Sha. Co-Written and directed by Stephen Fung.

   The setup for this exciting heist film is the oldest of cops and robbers cliches, the tough obsessed cop vs the clever thief. A thousand variations of the story have been told from Les Miserables to Arsene Lupin, but this one wisely relies on action, high tech, gorgeous locales (Paris, Cannes, Prague, Kiev — the latter not so gorgeous), and a bit of character development rather than try to ring any changes on the standard tropes.

   Dan Zhang (Andy Lao) is just out of prison. He was captured while stealing a rare jewel, one part of a fabulous set known as Gaea, when he stopped to rescue Inspector Pierre Bissette (Jean Reno) from a burning police car, and a mysterious motorcyclist ambushed him, knocked him unconscious, and stole the jewel.

   In short order Dan eludes Bissette and is off to Cannes where the second part of the Gaea set is up for auction. Reunited with his friend and computer geek partner Po (Tony Yo-ning Yang) for the heist they are also joined by a third new team member, Red (Qui Shu) a kick ass young woman of invaluable skills.

   The heist goes off without a hitch despite Bissette’s presence, and Dan and Po are off to see the fence who befriended and taught Dan all he knows, Kong (Eric Trang), who presents Dan with the tongue of the thief who hijacked the jewel five years earlier, and informs Dan that his fiance, art appraiser Amber, was the one who turned him into the cops. Dan still loves her though, and can’t really blame her.

   The cost of retirement is high, and with the money Kong spent on revenge taken out of his payment, Dan agrees to one last heist, the third and final part of the Gaea set the Rope of Life, owned by wealthy Charlie Lo (Yi Sha) who keeps it in his castle outside Prague.

   Meanwhile Bissette, under pressure to capture Dan, and with his own demonsdriving his pursuit (his father was a thief) is joined by Dan’s fiance Amber (Zhang Jingchu) to try and track Dan’s next heist down.

   “He’s the worst kind of thief,” Bissette tells Amber, “one with ethics and integrity. If I don’t get him now I never will.”

   It will be a surprise to no one that there is more going on than this, crosses and double crosses, betrayal, and subtle reminders that Dan and Bissette are more alike than different spice up the heist and its aftermath. Finally, with Amber taken hostage Dan must team with Bissette, and he and Po travel to Kiev in Russia where Gaea is to be sold, and all the scores settled in a clever finale.

   A clever metaphor for the plot and action are the Russian style dolls Kong makes for a hobby, revealed layer beneath layer until the truth is uncovered. No new ground is broken here, but it is great fun, better acted than usual, and with enough car chases, narrow escapes, neat gadgets, and reversals of fortune for two or three Bond movies enhanced by a solid script (co-credited with Lao as Andy Lo and others) and direction.

   Reno doesn’t have a lot to do in the mostly Chinese cast, but he adds weight to the story, and wears the cliches of his character like a bespoken suit. His Inspector Bissette is a lonely man who talks to the bugs in his apartment and has been passed over for promotion because of his failure to capture Zhang, but he is human and capable rather than the usual cartoon policeman of the cliché.

   Of course as usual there are some things you just have to take on faith they are so outside the realm of possibility, but if you are willing to give an inch, The Adventurers will brighten any evening.

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


UNDERWORLD BEAUTY. Nikkatsu, Japan, 1958. Original title: Ankokugai no bijo. Michitarô Mizushima, Mari Shiraki, Shinsuke Ashida, Tôru Abe, Hideaki Nitani. Director: Seijun Suzuki.

   Sweaty and more than a little bit sleazy, Underworld Beauty borrows liberally from the American gangster genre, film noir, and the juvenile delinquent film, all the while creating something exciting and new, if not completely coherent.

   Directed by Seijun Suzuki, this compellingly hip Japanese crime film exudes raw energy and sparkles with punctuations of gunfire. It eventually reveals itself to be an offbeat love story with the dark fatalistic humor of Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956), the sly direction of Sam Fuller, and the aesthetic of a 1950s hot rod exploitation film about rebellious teens and their jazz-infused dance parties.

   Filmed in black and white Cinemascope, Underworld Beauty opens with former convict Miyamoto (Michitarô Mizushima) making his way through the dank Tokyo sewers. He’s down there in the muck to retrieve stolen diamonds that he hid away in a wall below the urban streets prior to his incarceration.

   The film follows Miyamoto, clad in a black jacket and fedora, as he makes a deal with a yazuka crime boss, tries to make amends with his former partner, and begins a love-hate relationship with the latter’s wild sister Akiko Mihara (Mari Shiraki). Through a twist of circumstance, Miyamoto’s former partner ends up swallowing the diamonds, only to die from falling from a roof.

   Akiko’s boyfriend, who works as a designer of mannequins, cuts open the newly deceased and steals the diamonds out of the body. In a whirlwind of cinematic frenzy, the story moves ahead with various deceptions, a double-cross, a kidnapping, and a final dramatic shootout in a steamy furnace room. The acting may be decidedly mediocre, but the energy is infectious.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


THE HYPNOTIC EYE. Allied Artists, 1960. Jacques Bergerac, Merry Anders, Marcia Henderson, Allison Hayes, Joe Patridge, Guy Prescott, Jimmy Lydon… and Lawrence Lipton, “King of the Beatniks.” Written by Gitta & William Read Woodfield. Directed by George Blair.

   An agreeably hokey B-movie aimed at the degenerate kiddie trade. There’s a disturbing edge of misogyny, as raw and discomfiting as anything in Fuller or Franju, but the sheer naïve showmanship carries it through—mostly.

   Let’s get the nastiness out of the way first. Eye opens with a woman mutilating herself, and there’s another similar scene later on. This should be enough to disqualify it from any meaningful discussion, but I recall vividly that this movie was marketed to kids my age, and we lapped it up with the unconcern of children.

   Moving right along then, it’s perfectly obvious to everyone but the cops (Joe Patrick and Guy Prescott, who does a rather effective job as a Police Psychiatrist) that the women are under the influence of some diabolical mind control, engineered by creepy stage hypnotist Jacques Bergerac, with some unsettling input from his lovely assistant, the ubiquitous Allison Hayes, who was literally a towering presence in the trashy movies of her day.

   The police do their usual plodding best, assisted at first by Marcia Henderson, until she too falls under Bergerac’s spell, leading to a steamy sequence (literally) where Ms Hayes tries to get her under a shower of scalding water.

   There are some major continuity gaps here. The detective watching Marcia from the curb outside her house finally goes in and confronts Hayes, but in a lengthy scene in the house, he doesn’t recognize her, despite having seen her on stage. Then later, when the cops go back to check on her, Marcia is living in an apartment!

   It all ends in an effective and highly theatrical set-to on stage in a packed theatre, but along the way there are a couple of amusing detours: First a nightclub scene where Lawrence Lipton, “King of the Beatniks” recites Beat Poetry, including the immortal line, “I saw ‘Charley’s Aunt’ in the original uncut version.”

   Then towards the end there’s a moment where the movie breaks the fourth wall, as Bergerac looks straight into the camera and hypnotizes his audience, blurring the line between film and real life in much the same manner as William Castle did in The Tingler.

   This sequence was quite a hoot in theaters, but its effect seems somewhat diminished on TV. I don’t remember much about it, but I awoke the next morning convinced that Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life.

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