Crime Films


REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:

   

THE PUSHER. United Artists, 1960. Kathy Carlyle, Robert Lansing, Felice Orlandi, Douglas Rodgers, Sloan Simpson, Sara Amman, Jim Boles, John Astin. Screenplay by Harold Robbins, based on the novel by Ed McBain. Director Gene Milford

   While it may not be polished, one thing is for certain. The Pusher has grit. Loads of it, actually. Based on Ed McBain’s eponymous novel, this crime film has the aesthetic one might expect from such a movie. Lots of on location shots of tough, crime-ridden Manhattan streets, nightclubs galore, and a particularly unsavory drug dealer who admittedly preys on the youth and vulnerable women. Although clunky at times, with pacing that never quite works, it’s an overall solid work of independent film-making and an early example of what would later be come to be known as exploitation films.

   The plot follows New York police lieutenant Peter Byrne as he attempts to solve the mystery of who killed a young Puerto Rican junkie. As it turns out, his daughter has a nexus to the crime. Not only that, she’s also been hooked on heroin by the same dealer who is a suspect in the aforementioned murder. There’s also a romantic relationship at play. Byrne’s partner is engaged to be married to his daughter. And he has no idea that his beloved is an addict. A tough spot to be in.

   What makes The Pusher work is not so much the plot, but the atmosphere. Lots of scenes showcase urban poverty, cold and cruel sidewalks, and an overarching sense of despair and dissolution. Although staid compared to 1970s cinema, it’s still a movie that pushes the envelope for its time. An MGM film, this is not. Had this movie been made in the 1980s, it definitely could have easily been produced by Cannon Films and starred Charles Bronson as the lead.

   One final thing. The film’s villain, a heroin dealer who goes by the nickname Gonzo, is portrayed by Italian American actor Felice Orlandi. Although I wasn’t familiar with him until I saw this film, he gives an exceptionally convincing performance as a conniving street smart criminal. I had a chance to look him up and saw that he was in numerous crime films from the 1960s and 1970s, including some I have seen. Next time I watch them, I will be sure to keep an eye out for him.

   

DEADLY DUO. United Artists, 1962. Craig Hill Craig Hill, Marcia Henderson, Robert Lowery, Dayton Lummis, Carlos Romero, Irene Tedrow, David Renard. Based on the novel The Deadly Duo by Richard Jessup. Director: Reginald Le Borg.

   Based on the other work I’ve read by Richard Jessup, a fairly prolific writer of westerns and paperback crime fiction in the 50s and 60s, this might have been a good novel, an original from Dell in 1959, but even if the movie followed the book closely, which it very well may have, the translation still didn’t turn out all that well.

   The story elements are all there. Her son having been killed in a racing car accident, a wealthy woman wants to obtain custody rights to her grandson, now being raised by his now single mother (Marcia Henderson), a former stripper. To that end, he hires a struggling young attorney (Craig Hill) to go to Acapulco to offer the woman $500,000 to give up the child.

   When he gets there, she refuses outright, but her twin sister and her husband (Robert Lowery) have other ideas, one of which is murder, and of course you already know, I’m sure, how it is that they think they can pull it off.

   The plot is intricately structured and well planned out, but the ending is telegraphed well in advance, leading to a twist ending which is no surprise at all. There’s no fun in that! It is fun to see Marcia Henderson (whom I remember from her leading role in the long-forgotten TV series Dear Phoebe) play two roles, one a dark-haired and very prim and proper mother, the other a brassy blonde floozy whose dancing career is going nowhere, now that his sister has quit the act they had together.

   It is also fun to see how Robert Lowery, a long-time B-movie star in the 1940s, looked in the later stages of his career. With a mustache and generally older looks, he looks even more like Clark Gable or Cesar Romero than ever (on the left in the lowermost photo).

   

THE ENTITLED. Anchor Bay, direct to DVD, 2011. Kevin Zegers, Victor Garber, Laura Vandervoort, Devon Bostic, Dustin Milligan, Tatiana Maslany, Stephen McHattie, Ray Liotta, Anthony Ulc. Director: Aaron Woodley.

   I don’t get it. This is a kidnapping film, and the gimmick is that it’s supposed be one committed by one of the floundering 99%, taking it out on the rich 1%. I have no brief in favor of the 1%, or not in this way, at least, as three idle rich kids (two male, one female) are held for ransom, that of $1.000,000 each from their respective three fathers. These guys (Ray Liotta, William Graber, and Stephen McHattie) are probably as crooked as all get out, or so it is (more than) hinted at throughout the movie.

   The question is, or at least it was for me, which of the three sets of protagonists (the three kidnappers, the three kidnapees, thr three fathers) are the most unlikable. The leader of the kidnappers (Kevin Zegers) is, I suppose, the one we are to root for, but loving his mother who can no longer pay her own medical bills, is not enough to warrant a killing spree like this, which is exactly what happens in movies like this when things go wrong, and yes, indeed, do they ever.

   

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:

   

NEVER LET GO. Rank, UK, 1960. Richard Todd, Peter Sellers, Elizabeth Sellars, Adam Faith and Carol White. Written by John Gullermin, Peter D Sarigny, and Alun Falconer. Directed by John Guilllermin.

   British Noir, dark as Detour and brutal as Big Heat, from the director of PJ and Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure, with veteran funnyman Sellers in a straight and very effective performance as the lead heavy.

   I detected understandable echoes of The Bicycle Thief here, along with surprising vibes from Death of a Salesman, in a story centered around Richard Todd, a cosmetics salesman who has lost his touch and quickly loses his car to a chop shop ring run by Adam Faith under the glowering eye of Peter Sellers.

   Let’s pause for a moment and look at Sellers here because his presence in the film positively sank it with the Public. A pity that, because it’s right up there with Francis Sullivan in Night and the City or Oscar Homolka in Sabotage, a figure of oversized villainy more compelling because he’s so real. Indeed, the more I watched, the clearer it became that the character’s arrogant brutality rose from a poignant desire to be loved.

   Pit this character against Todd’s anger at being treated like the Nobody he is, and you have a cosmic collision of irresistible force against irresistible force. The stolen car is vital to Todd’s work, but the police treat it as just another statistic. Spurred on to find it on his own, Todd finds himself hopelessly outmatched by motorcycle gangs and menacing goons — but he keeps on coming.

   Todd’s futile devotion to a lost cause — himself — puts Never Let Go solidly into Noir territory. He loses his job, gets beat up, causes a death, gets beat up, his wife leaves him, and he gets into one of the nastiest fights ever thrown onto the screen, leading to an ending that is at best equivocal. And all the while he’s struggling, Sellers’ character visibly deteriorates before our eyes until what we get is a conflict more dramatic because its antagonists are two sides of a very small coin indeed.

   I should add that the film is nowhere near as turgid as this review. John Guillerman’s style was marked by unpretentious (Some say he had a lot to be unpretentious about) craftsmanship and stylish bad taste, and it suits Never Let Go right down to its bloody fingernails.
   

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:

   

NEW JACK CITY. Warner Brothers, 1991. Wesley Snipes, Ice-T, Allen Payne, Chris Rock, Mario Van Peebles, Vanessa Williams, Judd Nelson. Director: Mario Van Peebles.

   The movie begins with a panorama aerial view of New York City, focusing squarely on the World Trade Center. (This was a decade before 9/11). That’s the cosmopolitan New York of high finance, of reaching for the heights and succeeding beyond all possible measure. But the camera doesn’t linger on that particular landmark for very long. Instead, it heads uptown and stops in Harlem. That’s where we see two men dangling another man from a bridge. Sure enough, they drop him into the river below. Just another casualty of the violent drug trade.

   What New Jack City does best is immersing you in the mean streets of Harlem in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Drawing upon blaxploitation cinema from the 1970s, the movie most definitely has a political point of view. Yes, the drug trade is horrible and is controlled by self-serving sociopaths. And yes, Blacks who partake in that criminal enterprise are killing their own people. And this needs to be understood within the context of a broken economy with staggering unemployment rates in neighborhoods like Harlem.

   Lest you think that the film excuses or glamorizes the crack cocaine dealers, I will let you know that it assuredly does not. The movie actually takes the point of view of Scotty Appleton (Ice-T) a New York cop whose animosity toward drug dealers isn’t merely professional; having lost his mother to a dealer’s violence, it’s deeply personal. Appleton enlists the help of a recovering crack addict (a youthful Chris Rock) to bring down Nino Brown (Wesley Snipes), a vicious drug kingpin whose gang has taken over an entire apartment building. Much of the movie moves along at a quick enough pace, with occasional interspersed vignettes in which the viewer gets to witness the degradations of addiction.

   While there’s nothing wrong with the movie’s narrative per se, it suffers from wearing its influences far too flamboyantly on its sleeve. There’s barely a gangster movie trope that doesn’t make its appearance here. And having Nino (Snipes) watching Al Pacino’s Scarface on television and mentioning James Cagney in passing only serves to remind the viewer that pretty much everything you’re seeing in the story is something you’ve seen done better and with more originality before.

   Wesley Snipes is great, though. He exudes a dangerous swagger, a ruthless confidence in his invincibly. The world is his, he exclaims at one point. He’s not a villain, he implores. He’s merely a victim of an unjust world. It’s a thoroughly convincing portrait of a man hopelessly deluded by the chimera of power. Like gangsters in movies time and again, it will be his hubris that brings him down to earth.

   

COUNTERPLOT. United Artists, 1959. Forrest Tucker, Allison Hayes, Gerald Milton, Jackie Wayne, Richard Verney, Miguel Ángel Álvarez. Director: Kurt Neumann.

   Here is a rare movie from the 0s filmed on location in Puerto Rico, perhaps for budgetary reasons, but it’s where Brock Miller (Forrest Tucker) has found a haven, on the run from a framed up murder rap back in New York it. Assisting him in his abandoned house hideaway is Manuel (Jackie Wayne), a young street urchin who has taken a tremendous shine to him.

   So much so that when Connie Lane (Allison Hayes), a night club singer and Brock’s very close lady friend, come to the island in search for him, he does everything he can to keep them apart. Also in the picture is Bergmann (Gerald Milton), a shady lawyer who plays both sides of he street for as much money as he can get. Brock and the insurance agent on one side, the real killer (Richard Verney) on the other. The agent is convinced Brock is innocent, but neither of them have any proof.

   In spite of several viewers on IMDb who found this movie incredibly boring, I see what they’re saying, but I’d place it in the category of “a whole lot better than it had any right to be.” Forrest Tucker and Allison Hayes make a great pair; at 6’4″, he’s one actor who towers way above her, even at 5’8″ not counting the two inch heels she seems to always be wearing. She’s a statuesque brunette in the Jane Russell mode, if you’ve never come across her in a film before, and since she never made it out of B-movies such as this, perhaps you have not.

   Even better is the relationship between Brock and young Manuel. It’s mostly a one-sided but a very real one, with Brock always quick on the temper and annoyed at him – but only momentarily. While apparently often in Broadway shows, this was Jackie Wayne’s only film credit. Add in Gerald Milton’s fast-talking performance, channeling Sidney Greenstreet for all he’s worth, and you have a group of players who add up more “plus points” together than the story itself.

   

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:

   

THE BLACK WINDMILL. Universal, 1974. Michael Caine, Donald Pleasence, Delphine Seyrig, Clive Revill, John Vernon. Based on the novel Seven Days to a Killing by Clive Egleton. Director: Don Siegel.

   Several years after Don Siegel directed Clint Eastwood as a cop in Dirty Harry (1971), he directed Michael Caine as a spy in The Black Windmill. One became a classic, iconic; the other is barely remembered, if at all. There are numerous reasons for this, not least of which is that The Black Windmill simply isn’t that memorable a work. Unlike Caine’s other spy thrillers – The Ipcress File (1965) (reviewed here)  comes to mind – this one just doesn’t have nearly the same level of excitement or style. It’s not a total loss, as Roger Ebert more or less concludes, but it just doesn’t stay in your memory for very long once the proceedings are over.

   Caine, in a restrained performance, portrays a British spy whose son is kidnapped. It doesn’t take him long, however, to decide that he is going to do whatever it takes to get him back. But he doesn’t take the Liam Neeson guns blazing approach, so much as a methodical, cold, and calculating one. The decision to have Caine’s character act this way was either designed to remain faithful original source material or was a deliberate stylistic choice on the part of Siegel and the producers. Whatever the rationale, Ebert was right. It really doesn’t work, at least not in the way it was likely intended.

   There’s something limp, plodding about the whole affair. The film isn’t nearly conspiratorial or paranoid as it should have been. At the same time, however, the essential storyline is compelling just enough to keep watching. Once you are invested in the characters, it flows along well enough to a rather sudden, violent, and somewhat incomplete conclusion.

   Adding some much-needed energy to the film is the always enjoyable Donald Pleasance as an eccentric spymaster whose cold indifference to the kidnapping somehow seems utterly believable. The film also benefits from on location filming, including at the eponymous black windmill in West Sussex. Not horrible, but by no means great, The Black Windmill would likely be appreciated more by Siegel completists than by anyone else.

   

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:

   

THE BURGLARS. Columbia Films, France, 1971. Columbia Pictures, US, 1972. Original title: Le casse. Jean-Paul Belmondo, Omar Sharif, Dyan Cannon. Based on the novel The Burglar, by David Goodis. Director: Henri Verneuil.

   Speaking of Perversity, I wanted to say a word or two about a French film called The Burglars, directed by Henri Verneuil and, based on David Goodis’s melancholy novel The Burglar. Never — not once in many many years of watching Trashy Movies — have I seen a film so utterly unfaithful o its source material.

   And never have I watched a film so lightly enjoyable anyway. From start to Finish, the Burglars is a romp, with spectacular scenery, mind-boggling stuntwork by its star,Jean-Paul Belmondo, colorful backgrounds, fights, chases, leaps, bounds, double-crosses, Op Art, gimmicks, and every thing else that made the thrillers of the late 60s/early 70s such fun to watch.

   The plot, about a gang of jewel thieves picked off by a cop who’s gone into business for himself, serves mainly as a pretext for Belmondo to strut his klutzy machismo while Cannon and Sharif look seductive, and is a complete betrayal of Goodis’s haunting thriller. But it’s all done with so much panache as to be immediately forgivable. And totally entertaining. Catch it!

   

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:

   

THE LINEUP. Columbia Pictures, 1958. Eli Wallach, Robert Keith, Richard Jaeckel, Mary LaRoche, William Leslie, Emile Meyer, Marshall Reed, Raymond Bailey, Vaughn Taylor, Cheryl Callaway, Robert Bailey, Warner Anderson. Screenplay: Stirling Silliphant. Director: Don Siegel.

   The Lineup is a film of contradictions, managing somehow to be both intriguing and dull, subversive and complacent – not at the same time, but close enough together to make one wonder how it ever got made at all. No one who has ever seen it forgets the killing at the skating rink or the wild car chase and shoot-out that climax he movie; on the other hand, one is hard-pressed to remember anything much happening in the whole first twenty minutes of the thing. Memorable and forgettable: that’s The Lineup.

   The reasons for this strange duality are readily apparent now, but at the time it must have seemed .like a good idea, to the producers at Columbia to make a low-budget feature film based on a popular TV series. And Don Siegel probably looked — on the surface, at least — like the best man to direct it, having done the pilot for the television series four years earlier . He must have seemed like a natural.

   But Don Siegel had changed a lot in the years since The Lineup was first televised; he had entered the most anarchic and most personals age of his career, using low-budget action films as vehicles to say something meaningful about individuals trying to attain identity in an Anonymous Society: films like Riot in Cell Block11, Baby Face Nelson, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, his clearest and mos deliberately paranoid statement on the dangers of Unity. And it was this middle-aged rebel, not the fair-haired boy of four years earlier, who brought his feelings to bear on The Lineup, which mus have turned out to be a lot different from what the producers had in mind.

   For one thing, he scenes built around the police/heroes of the piece, are thoroughly, almost painstakingly, dull. Siegel shoots he Police Procedure parts in an obviously disinterested style, routine set-up following routine set-up as the story meanders towards no place in particular with no noticeable sense of pace. The Police are sympathetic enough, to be sure, but they’re also boring and banal in this movie, which makes for a pretty soporific first twenty minutes or so … Until the killers come on.

   With the introduction of Eli Wallach and Robert Keith, we get a look at last at he film Siegel wanted to make, and an impressive job it is, too. The flatness of the photography suddenly looks impressive, with the characters struggling in long shot against a landscape of towering ships and crowded streets, standing in sharp contrast against anonymous hotel rooms and deserted docks as they march resolutely towards some predestined end.

   Wallach and Keith are quickly established as enforcers for some anonymous but highly structured criminal organization. They, and everyone they meet, have a small and well-defined part to play in some complex and mysteriously important scheme; the nondescript man who gives them their assignment, the nameless figure who pronounces their death sentences, and everyone else they encounter, all either conform to the rigid norm of their social order or die for departing from them.

   It’s a daring message for a film supposedly designed to celebrate the glories of Police Routine, but Siegel states his theme clearly and repeatedly, from the siren-blast time signal that begins and ends his characters assignment, to the way Keith keeps correcting Wallach’s stammer, right down to the infringement of The Rules that dooms both men: Siegel demonstrates the peril of acing Human in a world of Pod People, and, intriguingly, he makes his point around a deliberately unsympathetic character.

   As the killer (ironically called Dancer) Eli Wallach’s ripe features and beady eyes seem constantly cocked and ready, about to explode into some socially unsanctioned violence as he moves skittishly about the San Francisco landscape. He plays this perfectly against Keith, as his mysterious supervisor, who comes on like a voice-over announcer in a commercial, constantly reminding his subordinate about how well they are doing their job as he methodically jots down the last words of their victims in a little notebook.

   The last half of The Lineup is heady stuff indeed, with well-staged bursts of violence built around a rapidly accelerating plot, culminating in one of the most chilling performances ever committed to film, by a perfect unknown named Vaughan Taylor, and a car-chase across a half-completed freeway system — done mostly with back-projection — that completely outclasses the more expensive and highly-touted car-chase scenes that became a staple of the Movies in the 1970s.

   So catch this movie the next time it comes along. Have a good book to read or something to occupy your mind for the first twenty minutes, then sit back o enjoy one of the most surprisingly perverse movies ever.

   

DOWN THREE DARK STREETS. United Artists, 1954. Broderick Crawford, Ruth Roman, Martha Hyer, Marisa Pavan, Max Showalter, Casey Adams, Kenneth Tobey, Jay Adler, Claude Akins. Screenplay by Gordon Gordon & Mildred Gordon (as The Gordons) and Bernard C. Schoenfeld, based on the novel Case File: FBI by The Gordons. Director: Arnold Laven.

   Told in semi-documentary fashion, Down Three Dark Streets tells the story of how FBI Agent John ‘Rip’ Ripley (Broderick Crawford) finishes up the three cases that fellow agent Zach Stewart (Kenneth Tobey) was working on when he was gunned down and killed. He assumes that the killer was involved in one of the three cases, but which one and who.

   The cases: (1) A killer on the loose. A possible contact: his girl friend (Martha Hyer). (2) A car theft gang. Possible contact: the blind wife of one of the members (Marisa Pavan). (3) An extortion threat to a recent widow (Ruth Roman) involving her young child.

   The kidnapping threat is the major one, the one Ripley spends most of his time on. There are several suspects, but if you don’t mind my saying so, while you could easily pick any one of them, the obvious one is the one. Of special note is that the semi-suspenseful finale takes place at the base of the Hollywood sign high up in the LA hills.

   Broderick Crawford is his usual gruff down-to-business self. Ruth Roman was always a fine actress, as she is in this above average crime thriller, but her career never developed as much in my mind as it should have. On the other hand, Martha Hyer’s career went into high gear soon after this, in which she quite effectively plays the gunman’s moll, outwardly tough and brassy, but ultimately fragile and insecure on the inside.

   

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