Crime Films


REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:         


NOOSE. Pathé Pictures International, UK, 1948. Monogram Pictures, US, 1950, as The Silk Noose. Carole Landis, Joseph Calleia, Derek Farr, Stanley Holloway and Nigel Patrick. Screenplay: Richard Llewellyn. Director: Edmond T. Greville.

NOOSE Carole Landis

   An enjoyably lop-sided thing in which disparate elements (nasty gangsters, snappy dialogue, dead women, comedy, torture, slapstick, guilt, laughter) work against each other throughout to produce a film that is actually quite fun to watch.

   Carole Landis, in her penultimate film, stars as a plucky gal reporter of the Lois Lane school, working for the fashion department of a great metropolitan (London) newspaper, who tumbles onto the startling fact that there is Vice going on in town and someone’s making money off it.

   Dampened by her editor, deprecated by her fiancé and daunted by gangland, our heroine promptly smashes the rackets in about an hour and a half, with the assistance of her ex-commando boyfriend (Derek Farr) a bunch of his mates down at the boxing gymnasium, and the bemused gaze of Stanley Holloway as a crusty cop.

   I know it all sounds like pretty standard stuff but Noose is a film that has to be seen to be appreciated. Richard Llewellyn’s (yes, that Richard Llewellyn’s) dialogue carries a pleasant bite, and director Greville moves the action along at a nice clip, pausing long enough to savor a bite of suspenseful unpleasantness or evoke a slice of character, then moving right along.

NOOSE Carole Landis

   He does particularly well by Joseph Calleia as a gangland mastermind complete with a nasty personal assassin known as “the Barber” who scuttles about like some sort of loathsome land-bound crab with a perpetual and unsettling leer. And the fact that this nasty toad is played by the comedic Shakespearean trouper Hay Petrie only adds to the cachet.

   You may gather from the above that Noose is a grim exercise in Gangland procedure, and you’d be quite right; there are some bits of suspense and sadism that match anything you’re likely to see in American film noir. Imagine my surprise then when the story wraps up in a burst of farcical slapstick so silly one looks around for the Three Stooges to show up. It doesn’t spoil the film by any means, but it does edge it closer to Monty Python than Mickey Spillane.

   A few more points that deserve to be outed:

NOOSE Carole Landis

   One seldom praises the editing in a film because when it’s really good, editing goes unnoticed. But here it calls attention to itself with brassy charm as editor David Newhouse (who only did one other film) keeps changing scene by cutting from one moving figure to another moving in the same direction, or from one image to its mirror-twin, polishing the flashy narrative even brighter. One notices the editing in Noose and appreciates it.

   Then there’s Nigel Patrick as Calleia’s second-in-command, delivering a perfect performance in such a well-written part that at times it quite overbalances the whole film, and no one cares. Words can’t do it justice; you just have to see Patrick strutting about like a wind-up toy barking out staccato tongue-twisters to fall in love with him.

   And finally mention must be made of an actress in another throw-away part, Carol van Derman as a momentary object of Calliea’s attentions. She spends several minutes toward the end of this film stepping about in her step-ins, and she’s rather good at it.

NOOSE Carole Landis

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:         


WILBUR DANIEL STEELE – The Way to the Gold. Doubleday, hardcover, 1955. No paperback edition.

THE WAY TO THE GOLD. 20th Century Fox, 1957. Jeffrey Hunter, Sheree North, Barry Sullivan, Walter Brennan, Neville Brand, Jacques Aubuchon, Ruth Donnelly. Based on the novel by Wilbur Daniel Steele. Director: Robert D. Webb.

THE WAY TO THE GOLD

   Buried somewhere deep inside the three hundred and seventy-five pages of Wilbur Daniel Steele’s The Way to the Gold, there’s a taut adventure tale screaming to get out, and it’s just too bad it didn’t make it, poor thing.

   The story starts out like a Gold Medal Original, with Joe Mundy, a young loner embittered beyond his years, jailed for a killing he never done. Joe’s cell mate turns out to be legendary outlaw Ned Glaze, the last of the old-time train robbers, who still holds secret the hiding place of his last haul, a hundred thousand in gold taken in a heist that cost the lives of his partners.

   And over the course of about a hundred pages we get to where we knew we were going all along: Joe is a free man, out of jail and on his way to the gold.

   Things, of course, just ain’t that simple. Joe’s passport to the small town where the loot is stashed turns out to be a genial, cherubic and very mysterious character named Hannibal, and Joe very quickly finds himself parked in a boarding house populated with surviving relatives of Ned Glaze’s old gang, who seem to think they have a claim on the money. There’s also a hard-boiled waitress with a soft spot for embittered loners and a tough-but-friendly cop who’s clearly got cards he ain’t showing.

   Steele takes these promising characters, and over the course of the next hundred-and-some pages, does nothing very much with them as Joe and the story get swallowed up in the trivia of getting along in a small town. And I mean “trivia”. And I mean “swallowed” as The Way to the Gold seems to lose its way somewhere in a novel of suburban life in the mid-50s.

   By the time we actually get on our way to the gold, a couple hundred more pages have grunted their way past in constipated movement — at which point we get to where I suspected we were headed all along, and if you didn’t see it coming a long ways back, you just wasn’t looking.

THE WAY TO THE GOLD

   Two years later, Twentieth Century Fox turned this into nothing more than a run-of-the-mill movie with a low-voltage cast, but they did rather well by it. Direction was entrusted to Robert D. Webb, whose films were never all that memorable, but the writing chores were handed to one Wendell Mayes, a writer whose name should be better known.

   Mayes was responsible for blockbusters like The Poseidon Adventure and The Spirit of St. Louis, but he also brought in smaller, quirkier efforts like The Hanging Tree and From Hell to Texas in fine form.

   Here he trims away the fat and returns the story to Gold Medal Original country, where it really always belonged. Gone is the minutia of small town life and endless domestic complications, replaced by a tight, fast-moving narrative that still takes time to appreciate the characters.

THE WAY TO THE GOLD

   Jeffrey Hunter comes off well as bitter, untrusting Joe Mundy, played off against Sheree North in full Kim-Novak-mode as the hard-boiled waitress. Barry Sullivan shows off his type-cast toughness as a local lawman who seems too smart to be hanging around this one-whore town, but pride of place must go to the family of dim-wit bad guys, winnowed down to four by writer Mayes, and perfectly realized by Walter Brennan as a senile old crackpot, Ruth Donnelly as a matriarch in the Lady Macbeth mode, Neville Brand as the brawn of the outfit, and especially Jacques Aubuchon, a busy actor you never heard of, absolutely perfect as the totally inadequate “brains” of the gang.

   Given Maye’s ability to impart fast touches of character, and director Webb’s gift for getting out of the way, this cast runs quite capably with a story that really moves, somehow giving the impression that there are real people involved in this paperback plot and bringing things to a fast, satisfying conclusion. The Way to the Gold turns out as a fun thing to watch and a film much much better than its source.

THE WAY TO THE GOLD

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:         

LURED George Sanders

LURED. United Artists, 1947. George Sanders. Lucille Ball, Charles Coburn. Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Boris Karloff, George Zucco, Joseph Calleia, Alan Mowbray, Robert Coote, Alan Napier. Screenplay by Leo Rosten. Story by Jacques Companéez, Simon Gantillion & Ernest Neuville. Directed by Douglas Sirk.

   Douglas Sirk’s name is primarily associated with a series of glossy brilliant soap operas made in the 1950′s such as Written on the Wind, Tarnished Angels, and All That Heaven Allows, but before turning to these lush technicolor films the European Sirk produced three droll crime films: A Scandal in Paris with George Sanders as the thief turned policeman Eugene Francois Vidocq, Summer Smoke again with George Sanders and based on Anton Chekhov’s short novel The Shooting Party, and this, Lured.

   The setting is post war London where the city is paralyzed by a series of murders of young women who all answered ads in the agony column of the London Times. After each killing the murderer sends a taunting poem to Scotland Yard daring them to catch him.

   Inspector Harley Temple (Charles Coburn) is in a bad mood, because so far his investigation is getting nowhere, but when he meets Sandra Carpenter (Lucille Ball), the best friend of the latest victim, he has a bright idea. What if he turned the killers method of meeting his victims against him — set a trap for him with an attractive lure — and Sandra Carpenter a smart savvy American showgirl is the perfect lure.

   George Zucco is the sardonic Officer Barrett assigned as Ball’s bodyguard. She will answer the ads, meet the men who sent them, and when the killer shows his hand Barrett will pounce.

LURED George Sanders

   After a couple of false starts, including a fine performance by Boris Karloff as a mad dress designer, they get their first real lead, Robert Fleming, a nightclub producer and impresario whose shows Ball had been trying to get into from the beginning.

   But the game is complicated when Ball starts to fall for Sanders even though she has been warned by his business partner Julian Wilde (Sir Cedric Hardwicke), and he fits the bill of the killer all too well.

   Ball resigns, convinced Sanders is innocent, but then a turn convinces her she was wrong, he is arrested, and then the real killer makes his move …

   Coburn is a pleasure as the Inspector, and Zucco, fine in a rare comic performance, is a droll delight. In fact Zucco comes near stealing every scene he appears in, which is no easy thing because Ball is not only beautiful, but holds the screen with real star power.

LURED George Sanders

   If you ever thought George Sanders would be an odd match for Lucille Ball you’d be wrong. They are a perfectly matched romantic pair here, and Sirk builds some real suspense because even cast as the hero Sanders had played so many villains it was no sure thing which side he would turn out to be on.

   The word that best defines this movie is droll. The screenplay by Leo Rosten is sharp (Dark Corner, Captain Newman MD, Where Danger Lives, Silky …), and the cast is a fine collection of character actors from the Hollywood Raj. It’s the kind of film where the smallest performance is perfectly timed and delivered.

   Comedy, romance, and suspense are expertly blended in this one. Sirk’s notable cinematic eye never lets the viewer down and a fine cast are all at their best.

   Still even among that fine cast. Lucille Ball and George Zucco are standouts and even if it is little more than a bit, it is nice to see Boris Karloff in a first class production having a bit of fun on screen.

   These three films were impossible to see for many years, but A Scandal in Paris and Lured have been issued in handsome DVD’s from Kino Video and both have played on TCM. Summer Storm was released on DVD by VCI in 2009 and is worth obtaining since it contains fine performances by Sanders and Edward Everett Horton as nineteenth century Russian noblemen caught up in a crime of passion.

LURED George Sanders

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:         


SHADOW OF THE LAW

SHADOW OF THE LAW. Paramount Pictures, 1930. William Powell, Marion Shilling, Natalie Moorhead, Regis Toomey, Paul Hurst, George Irving, Frederick Burt. Screenwriter John Farrow, based on the novel The Quarry by John A. Moroso (Little, Brown, 1913). Director: Louis Gasnier.

   Back in 1922 a man named Robert Elliott Burns was sentenced to hard labor on a Georgia chain gang for his part in an armed robbery that netted him and two other men less than six dollars. Probably only Steve and Walter are old enough to remember, but Burns escaped from the chain gang and made a new life for himself under another name, eventually becoming a prominent businessman in Chicago and something of a celebrity when his wife (who had been blackmailing him) betrayed him to the law after getting a cash settlement from him in exchange for a divorce.

   Burns could have fought extradition but agreed to return to Georgia when corrections officials there promised him quick release after some nominal service. Instead, they reneged on their promise and he was returned to the chain gang for “extra attention” from the guards, with no release in sight. Eventually Burns escaped again and wrote I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang (Vanguard, 1932), which finally secured his freedom.

SHADOW OF THE LAW

   Burns is best remembered for the movie made from his book, but his personal story seems to have been much on the mind of John Farrow, screenwriter of the film Shadow of the Law, which appeared a full two years before I Am a Fugitive hit the bookstands and movie screens.

   The story in Shadow of the Law is slightly changed, but the essential elements are there: William Powell stars as a decent if amorous gentleman who gets in a scrape over a lady (perennial vamp Natalie Moorhead) and ends up accidentally killing a man—whereupon Ms. Moorhead, fearing scandal or worse, promptly decamps, leaving Powell with no witness to clear him of a murder charge that sends him to prison.

   A few years later, Powell is a hardened-enough convict to pal up with a thief (well played by Paul Hurst) and exploit the warden’s trust in him to break out of jail. When we next see him, he has become a highly-placed executive, respected by the workers in his factory and engaged to the owner’s daughter — but determined to find Moorhead and clear his name.

SHADOW OF THE LAW

   He does eventually find her, or rather Hurst does, but she proves smarter than Hurst thought and more avaricious than Powell suspected, leading to some plot twists both melodramatic and highly entertaining.

   In fact, the writing and direction (by Louis Gasnier) in Shadow keeps the story right on its edge, offering some juicy plot twists and a couple of suspenseful moments, one of which – as I realized what Powell was going to do to himself and watched him calmly set about it — I swear made my skin crawl. Director Gasnier is not well known as an auteur (unless you count Reefer Madness) but his work here shows a stylishness and pace perfectly suited to the subject.

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:         


LOVE CRIME

LOVE CRIME. French; original title: Crime d’amour, 2010. Ludvine Siegneur, Kristin Scott Thomas, Patrick Mille, Guillame Marquet. Directed by Alain Corneau, also co-screenwriter with Natalie Carter.

   Love Crime may seem like a leisurely suspense film at the beginning, and granted it takes its time to establish the two main characters, but once it kicks into gear it is a fascinating character study with enough twists and turns to keep any fan of suspense films happy.

   Kristin Scott Thomas has a showy role as Christine, a ruthless bisexual female executive who becomes mentor to the rather mousy Isabelle (Ludvine Siegneur). The sexual tension between them is obvious, and Siegneur, while shy, is not all that reluctant to be seduced. It becomes obvious this won’t end well early on.

   Siegneur seems to slowly blossom under Thomas’s guidance, until things go south when Thomas sends Siegneur to Cairo on an important business trip. Siegneur seduces Thomas’s lover (Phillipe Mille), and pulls off a triumphant business coup that is certain to insure her quick movement up the corporate ladder.

   Then Thomas takes all the credit for Siegneur’s coup.

   A relentless no holds barred competition begins between the two women, played out in the boardroom and the bedroom. Blackmail, humiliation, and extortion all play a role in the game between them until Siegneur finds herself publicly humiliated by Thomas and firmly under her thumb again.

LOVE CRIME

   Aided unwittingly by her Iago, her assistant Daniel (Marquet in a perfectly under played performance), Siegneur begins a ruthless plan of revenge, but it seems more mad than anything else. Humiliated, she spins out of control into uppers and downers and what becomes increasingly obviously a plan to murder Thomas and doing her best to frame herself.

   When she does murder Thomas, she even draws the first three letters of her name in Thomas’s blood. She is arrested and the police all too easily follow her self-incriminating trail. Still heavily drugged, Siegneur confesses. The film seems to be over, having driven itself into a wall.

   I can’t say much more about the plot without giving too much away, but all is carefully unraveled as Siegneur’s true/false trail by turns leads the police in unsuspected directions. One by one as each pawn falls and each part of Siegneur’s plan is revealed, this worm-turns tale slowly reveals just how much the viewer as well as everyone else has been played by Siegneur from the beginning. She gives new definition to the term passive-aggressive.

LOVE CRIME

   Love Crime is handsomely shot in beautiful color and on sleek modern sets, and moves at such a deliberate pace you may not recognize this is the model of classic film noir, with two femme fatale’s in a cat and mouse game that mid-film turns into a Simenon psychological suspense story with enough twists for Agatha Christie.

   It won’t be until the very last scene and the very last moment you realize how well you have been played, and how important that deliberation was to the final outcome of this clever film. Despite the two female leads don’t mistake this for a “woman’s” picture on Joan Crawford lines. This film is as hard and unsentimental a film as you will ever see.

   The cast is uniformly good, but it is Siegneur and Thomas who carry the film and without either character ever becoming a really sympathetic character. Both have obvious personality problems and possibly borderline personality disorders. At one point in the film you will be convinced Siegneur is mentally unbalanced, a sociopath with an unhealthy obsession with Thomas. It’s not until the end you even begin to suspect the truth.

LOVE CRIME

   If you stay with this film you will find at the end you enjoyed it much more than you thought, and may even want to watch it again, to see if you can catch the places you were played, mislead, and bamboozled by the intelligent script. This film has the courage to ask you to stick with it, and rewards that effort with a final moment that will leave you frostbitten.

   Love Crime was remade by Brian de Palma as Passion in 2012 with Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace. Despite that cast and a co-script by the screenwriter Natalie Carter, skip it and see the original, Corneau’s last film and a worthy one.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:         


SHERWOOD KING – If I Die Before I Wake. Simon & Schuster, hardcover, 1938. Mystery Novel of the Month #16, digest-sized paperback, [1940]. Ace Double D9, paperback, 1953 (published back-to-back with Decoy, by Michael Morgan). Curtis 7154, paperback, 1965.

THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI. Columbia Pictures, 1947. Rita Hayworth, Orson Welles, Everett Sloane, Glenn Anders. Based on the novel If I Die Before I Wake, by Sherwood KIng. Director: Orson Welles.

SHERWOOD KING If I Die Befoer I Wake

   Sherwood King’s If I Die Before I Wake offers an intriguing premise: Laurence Planter is something of a footloose jack-of-some-trades marking time, as the story starts, as a chauffeur to criminal attorney Mark Bannister and his trophy wife Elsa. He also spends a lot of time running Bannister’s partner Grisby back and forth from the Bannister house to the office.

   It’s on one of those runs that Grisby offers Laurence five thousand dollars to commit murder — the murder of Grisby himself.

   It’s a neat book, with an even neater twist to it: Grisby wants to fake his death by having witnesses see Laurence walk to the end of a dark pier with him, hear a shot and see Laurence come back alone. But no corpse will be found — Laurence can’t (he thinks) be charged with murder, but Grisby will (he thinks) be legally dead.

   And the scheme seems to work quite nicely until Laurence goes through with it and signs a confession,only to have Grisby’s body turn up after all — very very murdered.

   As I say, it’s a clever hook for a story, and Cornell Woolrich could have made a nightmarish classic of it, but Sherwood King just lets it lie there with the sharp end sticking up. There’s not much action in the story and very little movement at all, as if King were too lazy to describe new locations for us. Instead,he opens the tale with awkward dialogue, then gets bogged down in a lengthy trial scene capped off with a resolution that’s all talk. And so another good idea misfires.

   But wait….

   The story goes that in 1946 Orson Welles was trying to raise money from Harry Cohn, the head of Columbia Pictures, and during a desperate conversation in a drugstore phone booth his eye fell upon a paperback book he’d never read and he suddenly convinced Cohn it would make a great movie, which he could direct and star in with his then-wife, Columbia’s leading lady Rita Hayworth.

   Well, it’s a nice story and it may even be true, despite reports that Columbia already owned If I Die Before I Wake and was planning to have contract director William Castle make it as a B movie. (It would have made a good entry in the Whistler series.)

SHERWOOD KING If I Die Before I Wake

   Whatever the case, Welles took the basic plot and most of the details and turned The Lady from Shanghai (its new title) into his most enjoyable film, a tricky, fast-moving, witty, careening ride form Central Park, through Acapulco (some of this was filmed on board Errol Flynn’s yacht) to San Francisco’s Chinatown, culminating in a visual tour-de-force: the shoot-out in a hall of mirrors where, as one critic noted, the characters have to come face-to-face with themselves before meeting their end.

   Welles plays the hero like a young Falstaff, lustful, charming, and all too aware of his own fecklessness. He’s abetted by Rita Hayworth as the duplicitous wife — though he doesn’t give his then-wife much to do. I’ve seen her more effective in the hands of lesser directors — but the films is helped along splendidly by Everett Sloane and Glenn Anders as lawyers Bannister and Grisby.

SHERWOOD KING If I Die Before I Wake

   Except for a part in Tarzan’s Peril, I never heard of Glenn Anders before and after this film, and he reportedly had an awful time making it, but his performance as Grisby is one of high points of the American Cinema: sweaty, smiling, whiny and worming, he seems so devoid of humanity — of perhaps so excessively human — that you can’t figure out why no one ever killed him before the picture started.

   His performance complements Welles’ visual excesses perfectly, and I’ve always thought it an overlooked gem in a treasure-trove of a film.

SHERWOOD KING If I Die Before I Wake

THE BIG HEAT. Columbia Pictures, 1953. Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame, Jocelyn Brando, Alexander Scourby, Lee Marvin, Jeanette Nolan, Peter Whitney. Based on the novel by William P. McGivern. Director: Fritz Lang.

THE BIG HEAT

   This one preceded Human Desire, which came out in 1954, with the same two stars (Ford and Grahame), the same director, and if you were to ask me which one I like better, I’m not sure I can tell you.

   This is the one that’s freshest in my mind, however, so right now I’d probably give it the edge. While The Big Heat is not a movie without flaws, it has a lot of things going for it: atmosphere (crime and corruption in a big city), a plot that takes some interesting twists and turns, and some good performances, especially by Gloria Grahame as a gangster’s girl who dies in the end, with Glenn Ford playing the homicide detective who’s trying to run the city’s crime boss to earth.

   Lee Marvin, in what must have been an early film for him, also makes a strong impression as the sadistic hoodlum who takes great pleasure in burning and tormenting women. Surprisingly, its Glenn Ford himself who seems rather innocuous and bland, as if to say there is nothing interesting to say about knights in white armor.

THE BIG HEAT

   Villains, or at least those with pasts they are trying vaguely to shed (such as Gloria Grahame’s character) turn out, as often as not, to be the ones that stories revolve around. Ford’s character, while suffering a great deal of anguish and pain, as long as he’s as incorruptible as he is here, really doesn’t have anywhere else to go.

— Reprinted from Mystery*File 37, no date given, slightly revised.



THE BIG HEAT

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