Crime Films


REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


VICTIM. Allied Film Makers, UK, 1961. Dirk Bogarde, Sylvia Syms, Dennis Price, Peter McEnery, Derren Nesbitt, John Barrie, Hilton Edwards, Margaret Diamond. Written by Janet Green and John McCormick. Directed by Basil Dearden.

   This is gripping and unusual: A film with a Cause that doesn’t pound a drum or beat its chest, content to make its case with a taut, involving, thriller-style story.

   Peter McEnery opens the film as a young man on the run from the law, desperately seeking help from a rather odd circle of acquaintances who either can’t do much or reject him outright, including Dirk Bogarde as a rising and happily married barrister, who threatens to call the Police if McEnery bothers him again.

   This sets the tone for a noirish chase film, sustained even after McEnery gets busted and kills himself in Jail, which is when Dirk learns McEnery was being blackmailed for illegal homosexual activit — and died trying to protect him. Filled with grief and anger, he resolves to go after the blackmailers responsible for the death of a man whose only crime was loving him.

   Of course it’s not all that simple, not for a married man, and to their credit the makers of this film give due regard to the emotional conflicts of his wife (Sylvia Sims) without slowing the pace a bit. In fact, we very quickly get the idea that Dirk is up against something big and very nasty. There’s a sinister blind man who overhears the gossip at a crypto-gay bar and plots to make “collections;” a well-dressed habitué who seems to keep a sharp eye on everyone there, and a beefy young man on a motorcycle who just enjoys breaking things.

   Faced with massive odds, Bogarde pushes through the seamy underworld with only his wits and his own resolve for support, and in a nice bit of understated irony finds himself shunned by the people he’s trying to help—just as he dismissed McEnery early on.

   Along the way we get a bit of social commentary from sympathetic players who deplore the laws against homosexual conduct (this is 1961 remember), but they don’t stop the action to make speeches about it, and toward the end, writers Green & McCormick (a married couple with some fine films to their credit) indulge in a delightful bit of misdirection before confronting Bogarde and the viewer with the evil genius behind the blackmail racket.

   And it’s here where Victim really excels. I won’t reveal the surprise, but the identities and motives of the “Gang” but they really ring true, adding a frisson of personal insight to a film that was already a dandy noir thriller. Catch this one.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


GUN MOLL. Million Dollar Productions, 1938. Also released as Gang Smashers. Nina Mae McKinney, Laurence Criner, Monte Hawley and Mantan Moreland. Written by Ralph Cooper and Hazel Barsworth. Produced by Harry M. Popkin. Directed by Leo C. Popkin.

   This one surprised me.

   Readers who hang on to my every word will know I’m a big fan of all sorts of strange movies, including those made decades ago with all-black casts for all-black audiences, back when segregation was more tangible than it is today. There’s a lot of raw talent in these films, showcasing performers like Mantan Moreland, Bill Robinson, Herb Jeffries, Ethel Waters, Clarence Muse… I could go on, but you get the idea.

   Unfortunately the fine talent is often obscured by poor production values and technical teams unfamiliar with technique: poor sound, bad lighting and amateurish acting are the order of the day for these films, shot on schedules and budgets that would have defeated even the lowest of low-budget Hollywood producers.

   Imagine my surprise then, when I discovered Gun Moll, a cheap but near-professional effort produced by none other than Harry M. Popkin, very early in his career. And again, those readers who weep with delight at my smile will recall immediately my review of Champagne for Caesar where I singled Producer Popkin out for praise: his other efforts include And Then There Were None, D.O.A. and The Thief, but he got his start out there on the ragged edge of film-making, doing films the establishment ignored or despised.

   And doing them well. Gun Moll crackles with the sort of pace one associates with the early Warners gangster pics. Beautiful Nina Mae McKinney stars as an investigator working undercover as a singer in the nightclub used by gang boss Monte Hawley as a front for his Protection Racket — which gives her an excuse to provide some fine musical interludes backed by a snappy jazz band, while sneaking about the place doing whatever undercover gals do in the movies.

   About this time Laurence Criner shows up in the George Raft part as a hired gun on loan from another gang, and if you can’t guess that he’s really another Under Cover Man, well you’re in good company because Ms. McKinney doesn’t tumble either.

   Years later this was used in a Claire Trevor / Fred MacMurray film, but that’s a review for another time. Suffice it to say that things fall into place just in time for a well-paced chase scene followed by a Cagney-esque slug fest, done with the kind of vigor and professionalism that normally graces much bigger-budgeted movies.

   In fact, Gun Moll is marked by assured handling and effects normally reserved for more respectable movies, tricked out with stylish montages, clever editing and a sense of pace all too rare in B movies. And of course it languished unnoticed as producer Popkin moved on to bigger and (frankly) better things.

   But I’ll always have a soft spot for this one.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


THE MAN FROM HONG KONG. British Empire Films, Australia, 1975. Released in the US as Dragon Flies. Jimmy Wang Yu, George Lazenby, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Roger Ward, Ros Spiers, Rebecca Gilling, Sammo Kam-Bo Hung. Director: Brian Trenchard-Smith.

   There’s no shortage of fisticuffs and fantastically choreographed martial arts fight scenes in The Man From Hong Kong. Directed by Ozploitation auteur Brian Trenchard-Smith, this entertaining, if deeply uneven, action movie features martial arts legend Jimmy Wang Wu as the titular character and one-time James Bond portrayer George Lazenby as his nemesis.

   Occasionally uneven in its pacing, this thrill ride of a movie nevertheless moves along at a steady clip, with bloody and brutal fight sequences interspaced with calm, romantic interludes that seem oddly out of place. But with some great car chases and a 1970s disco-inspired soundtrack, The Man from Hong Kong doesn’t stray from its mission of providing viewers with pure escapist entertainment for very long.

   The plot. Inspector Fang Sing Leng (Jimmy Wang Yu) of the Hong Kong Royal Police Force Special Branch heads to Sydney in order to extradite a drug runner (future Hong Kong director and producer Sammo Hung) held by the local authorities.

   But when a lone assassin murders Leng’s prisoner in broad daylight, Leng decides that he’s going to take down the entire international drug cartel run by an Australian businessman named Wilton (Lazenby).

   Leng fights his way through Sydney, leaving death and mayhem in his wake. But he’s determined to bring down Wilton, no matter what the cost. And when Wilton’s men murder Leng’s Australian love interest, all bets are off. Leng is set to wreak havoc. And wreak havoc he does. Look for the scene in which he stuffs a live grenade in Wilton’s mouth. It is pure grindhouse mayhem.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


TOUGH GUYS. Touchstone/Buena Vista Pictures, 1986. Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Charles Durning, Alexis Smith, Dana Carvey, Darlanne Fluegel, Eli Wallach. Director: Jeff Kanew.

   A buddy movie. A message movie about how American society treats senior citizens. A comedy-crime film. Those are all perfectly adequate ways of describing Tough Guys. But at the end of the day, the movie was really one thing: a golden opportunity to bring Hollywood legends Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas together on the big screen for one last time.

   The two actors who appeared in a total of seven movies together, but who are perhaps best known for their work together in John Sturges’s Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (reviewed here ), portray best friends in Tough Guys. Best friends who happen to be finishing up a 30-year stint in prison for robbing the Gold Coast Flyer. These two men, the last two to rob a train in the United States, are truly the last of a dying breed.

   But if prison is tough, getting out is even tougher. Both men are fish out of water. Not only have times change, but they’re old men now. But they still love women.

   Through a series of romantic mishaps and comedic adventures, they learn the hard way that very few people want to treat senior citizens with much respect or dignity. There’s definitely a message here, one that Lancaster, in an interview with the New York Times, suggested takes the movie out of the real of action-comedy into something more meaningful.

   Despite this being a lightweight, perfectly innocent affair that doesn’t stay with you long after you’ve finished watching, Tough Guys works. The pairing of Lancaster and Douglas as two aging criminals trying to regain one last moment of glory is pure entertainment. It’s not a great movie, but it’s a good one.

   One last thing: without Lancaster and Douglas, this movie never would have worked. It’s their vehicle from start to finish.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


F.B.I. GIRL. Lippert Pictures, 1951. Cesar Romero, George Brent, Audrey Totter, Tom Drake, Raymond Burr, Raymond Greenleaf. Director: William Berke.

   There are plenty of shadows in FBI Girl. Unfortunately, they are a product of bad lighting rather than a film noir aesthetic. And that’s not necessarily the worst thing about this rather poorly constructed black-and-white semi-docudrama crime film. No. The worst aspect about the whole affair is that it wastes the talents of both Cesar Romero and Raymond Burr on a movie with a less than compelling plot and stilted, unrealistic dialogue.

   Romero portrays FBI Agent Glen Stedman. He’s tasked with investigating the suspicious death of a female FBI clerk working in the fingerprint division. Little does he know that his investigation will lead him straight into a morass of political corruption in Capitol City and the shrewd machinations of Grisby, a Southern politician (Raymond Greenleaf) and Blake, his corrupt, violent henchman (Raymond Burr). Much of the film follows Stedman as he travels from Washington D.C. to Capitol City and back again in search of possible clues.

   It’s a potentially intriguing premise for a movie, but FBI Girl never really gets off the ground. It’s consistently bogged down by either poor acting, an intrusive score, or as I mentioned earlier, bad lighting. There’s also a sound stage quality to the whole affair, making it seem a lot less like a feature film and more like a television show from the same era. Overall, a rather below average production.

DARK CITY. Paramount Pictures, 1950. Charlton Heston, Lizabeth Scott, Viveca Lindfors, Dean Jagger, Don DeFore, Jack Webb, Ed Begley, Harry Morgan, Mike Mazurki. Director: William Dieterle.

   In this film Charlton Heston is a small-time grifter who, along with his gang of cohorts, fleeces a LA businessman (Don DeFore) in a game of cards. When the man commits suicide, his brother (Mike Mazurki), not altogether sane, doesn’t take kindly to it and decides to do something about it.

   This wasn’t Charlton Heston’s film debut, but it was close. He had done a very early experimental film (Peer Gynt) back in 1941, then one other film (Julius Caesar) earlier that same year, plus a single episode of an obscure TV show called The Clock.

   While I think the movie is a small gem, it would be stretching it to say that you could tell from seeing it that Heston would soon be a major star. In fact, in old movies such as this one, I usually enjoy watching people such as Jack Webb, Ed Begley, and Harry Morgan performing a whole lot more.

   One other thing. This movie was released a long time before Jack Webb and Harry Morgan teamed up to do Dragnet on TV. Webb plays a shifty-eyed hood named Augie, with a wide-rimmed hat twice the size of his head, while Morgan is a punch-drunk hanger-on with a heart as big as all outdoors.

— Reprinted from Mystery*File #24,, August 1990 (expanded and revised).


REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


HARRY IN YOUR POCKET. United Artists, 1973. James Coburn, Michael Sarrazin, Trish Van Devere, Walter Pidgeon. Music by Lalo Schifrin. Producer-Director: Bruce Geller.

   Bruce Geller is best known for his work on the television series Mannix and Mission: Impossible. He also directed one feature film: Harry in Your Pocket, an offbeat study of the lives and times of a coterie of high-end pickpockets as they make their way from Seattle to Victoria, British Columbia, and eventually to Salt Lake City. Filmed on location, the movie defies easy categorization.

   With a prominent score by Lalo Shifrin, one that occasionally overwhelms what’s happening on screen, the film at times seems to be as much a musical as a crime drama. At the end of the day, the movie is best understood as a drama, even a tragedy. It’s a study of human frailty and character flaws, wrapped up in a package with the words “quirky crime film” written in black marker.

   The plot. Harry (James Coburn) is a pickpocket, living a luxuriously itinerant life on other people’s money and credit cards. Joining him for the proverbial ride is Casey (Walter Pidgeon), an aging pickpocket with a cocaine habit.

   They eventually join forces with Ray (Michael Sarrazin), an ambitious young pickpocket, and his girlfriend Sandy (Trish Van Devere). Soon, however, each of the gang’s personal flaws begins to take a toll on the group’s cohesion. Harry’s too rigid and is a womanizer. Casey has a drug habit and is ashamed that he is no longer as steady on his feet as he used to be. Ray is too ambitious for his own good and becomes increasingly jealous of Harry’s infatuation with Sandy. And Sandy. She’s the linchpin in all this. Even Harry says that he thinks she’s going to be trouble.

   While it’s not what I would call an excellent film, Harry in Your Pocket is a quite captivating work. It’s subtle and Coburn puts in a solid performance. It’s Pidgeon, however, in one of his last leading roles, that made the most memorable impression on me. Look for the scene in which he is instructing Ray on the “art” of being a pickpocket. He reminisces about the good old days before mugging, when pickpockets took their craft seriously and there was a code and honor in the “profession.”

   It’s that sense of melancholy and nostalgia that stayed with me. A product of the 1970s, Harry in Your Pocket could be easily interpreted as an extended cinematic metaphor for the generational divide in early 1970s American society.

KISS ME A KILLER. Concorde-New Horizons, 1991. Julie Carmen, Robert Beltran, Ramon Franco, Charles Boswell, Sam Vlahos. Director: Marcus DeLeon.

   This late night attraction on one of the pay channels we’ve just signed up for is the first I’ve taped that turned out to be more than I was hoping for. You may or may not believe me, but what this is is an authentic, down-to-earth throwback to the noir movies of of the 1940s, done semi-salsa style.

   It takes place in L.A., where the middle-aged (and white) owner of a bar has a good-looking but bored younger wife, and when he hires a new Latino singer for the house band, fireworks begin to happen.

   In spite of a list of actors who’ve been around but who are still pretty much unknown (at least to me), the acting is top-drawer, if not quite top notch, the music is fine, the pace is fast, and the story makes sense. Julie Carmen, a sultry brunette with a voice so husky it could pull an Alaskan dog sled, as the saying goes, I would not mind seeing again either. This one’s a keeper, that’s for sure.


— Reprinted from Nothing Accompliced #4, November 1993 (slightly revised).

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


DANCE HALL RACKET. Screen Classics Inc., 1953. Timothy Farrell, Lenny Bruce, Bernie Jones, Honey Bruce and Killer Joe Piro. Written by Lenny Bruce. Produced by George Weiss. Directed by Phil Tucker.

   There’s something sort of fitting about Lenny Bruce dong a tame 1950s skin-flick, but the good news here is that this film is too seldom shown to damage his reputation — which, come to think of it, he did pretty well all by himself. The other good news is that aside from Bruce, Dance Hall Racket is not a waste of anyone’s talent; the talents here assembled are perfectly suited to this sub-nudie effort, and navigate the seedy screen like they were born for it.

   We get Timothy Farrell as Umberto Scali, running a dime-a-dance joint as a front for various & sundry illegalities, such as murder, diamond smuggling and maybe a touch of prostitution; Lenny Bruce and Killer Joe Piro as flunky-hoods; Honey Bruce as a dancer who changes her clothes a lot, and Bernie Jones (formerly of Spike Jones’ ensemble) as a dumb Swede who stops the action every so often to tell excruciatingly bad jokes.

   Dance Hall Racket exists primarily as an excuse to show attractive young ladies in stages of undress, highlighted at various intervals by an actual glimpse of a bare breast (GOSH!) but there’s a sort of tawdry plot here: something about Timothy Farrell buying hot ice and planning to abduct a recently-released con and find out where he stashed the loot.

   We also get an undercover cop worming his way into Farrell’s scene and a neophyte taxi-dancer resisting temptation, but Dance Hall Racket is too disjointed to weave any of these threads together; like I say, it’s an excuse to look at nekkid wimmin, and a pretty feeble one at that, shot on shoe-box sets by a cameraman who looks like he was thinking of something else at the time.

   Getting back to the talented people who made this film, well, Lenny Bruce is legendary, and his wife Honey was played by Valerie Perrine (who got an Oscar nomination) in the biopic Lenny, but the others are almost as fascinating: Producer George Weiss started out with Test Tube Babies in 1948, went on to Glen or Glenda? (1953) and continued on into the 90s making films he should be ashamed of.

   Right after Dance Hall Racket director Phil Tucker tried going “legit” with Robot Monster, a legendary mess in fake 3-D, but was soon back to doing things like Strips Around the World and Bagdad After Midnite. He continued working sporadically in the movies as late as the 1980s.

   My favorite though is Timothy Farrell, here the gang boss, but in real life an L.A. County Sherriff’s bailiff (he appeared as himself the next year in A Star Is Born) who acted in nudie movies and religious shorts on the side. He eventually made County Marshall (despite having one of his films seized in a police raid) but was fired for using his deputies as political activists in 1975, indicating a personality much more interesting than this bizarre little film.

DEAD PIGEON ON BEETHOVEN STREET. Episode 25, Season 1, of Tatort, Germany, 07 January 1973. Original title: Tote Taube in der Beethovenstraße. Glenn Corbett, Christa Lang, Sieghardt Rupp, Anton Diffring, Stephanie Audran, Eric P. Caspar. Screenwriter-director: Sam Fuller. Novelization: Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street, by Samuel Fuller (Pyramid V3736, paperback original, 1974).

   This is the story of a private eye named Sandy (Glenn Corbett) who comes to Germany on an extremely important case. He’s been hired an United States senator with presidential aspirations to obtain a negative that in the wrong hands could prove to be extremely embarrassing. His partner, who arrived before him, is dead. His objective: find the killer, infiltrate the gang of blackmailers, and save the senator’s hide.

   The killer, as it turns out, is a fellow named Charlie Umlaut. Sandy’s gateway to the gang is a girl named Christa (Christa Lang) who is also the girl in the compromising photograph. She also knows who the leader of the gang is (Anton Diffring), and to gain her confidence, Sandy poses as a rival in the blackmail business. But can Christa herself be trusted, even when propinquity (between herself and Sandy) takes the way of nature and least resistance?

   This was filmed at a low point in Director Sam Fuller’s career. The story had nothing (or very little) to do with the rest of the German series it was filmed as part of. But Fuller had name value, and he was given a a free hand, more or less — given budgetary considerations. The movie (which is what I will call it) is filmed in beautiful colors and fanciful camera angles, and in those two regards, I should consider it a huge success.

   But the story, at least in the longer, restored director’s cut (in the DVD recently released and remastered through the UCLA Archives) becomes repetitious and boring, and the acting is stiff and the dialogue on occasion seemingly ad-libbed. Christa Lang’s awkward body motions, speech patterns and facial expressions can easily become annoying, if you allow them. (She was married to Fuller at the time and until his death.)

   Some reviewers have really disliked this movie. Others call it a work of genius, calling it an inspired collision with (and combination of) Noir and the New Wave. I don’t know as I’d go that far, but Fuller usually knew what he was doing, and while I also don’t know if he did here, maybe he really did. Either that or the movie is a complete failure, and once that is admitted, then perhaps that’s what it was how it was intended, as a complete spoof of the crime genre.

   And maybe this review makes sense too, and maybe it doesn’t.

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