Crime Films

GUNS, GIRLS AND GANGSTERS. United Artists, 1959. Mamie Van Doren, Gerald Mohr, Lee Van Cleef, Grant Richards, Elaine Edwards, John Baer, Paul Fix. Director: Edward L. Cahn. Currently streaming on YouTube (see below).

   A heist movie, and everyone reading this knows exactly how heist movies, go, if not having possible scripts already in mind and ready to go, if only someone would come along and offer you the money to start filming it tomorrow. In this one, Gerald Mohr’s character has just been released from prison and has a armored car hijacking all figured out.

   He hooks up with a night club owner (Grant Richards) who could use a sizable cut of the loot (somewhere in the two million range) to help finance the robbery. Working for Richards is a singer (Mamie Van Doren) who, as it happens, is/was (I’m not clear on this point) married to Mohr’s cellmate (Lee Van Cleef), who is still in prison.

   I won’t go into how the heist goes wrong, but the movie certainly picks up its rather slow and sluggish pace when Van Cleef breaks out of prison, even with only a few months before he is due for a parole. Livens the movie right up, it does.

   Unfortunately, while Gerald Mohr had a great tough-sounding voice for radio (Philip Marlowe), he has been rather stiff in any of the movies I’ve ever seen him in. Mamie Van Doren is always easy to look at, but in this movie her voice is harsh and bitter-sounding. Lee Van Cleef’s eyes brighten up with glee whenever he can do some damage to whatever the plot is that he’s walked in on, and he walks away with full acting honors in this otherwise lackluster black-and-white crime film.


BULLET SCARS. Warner Bros. / First National, 1942. Regis Toomey, Adele Longmire, Howard Da Silva, Ben Welden, William Hopper (uncredited). Director: D. Ross Lederman. Currently streaming on YouTube (see below).

   The plot of this one is definitely second-hand, if not third. When the members of the Frank Dillon gang hold up a small town bank, one of the thieves is shot and seriously wounded. They need a doctor for him right away. They kill the first one, who gets too wise too quickly. The second one, played by Regis Toomey, is a lot slower on the uptake, and agrees to operate (brain surgery, no less) is a small cabin in the mountains, with only a nurse (the wounded man’s sister, but under duress herself) to assist.

   As I say, Dr. Bishop may be a whiz at the operating table, but then again, he’s the kind of guy who’s interested in doctoring and doing research and never listens to the news. It is Nurse Madison (sharp-featured and pretty brunette Adele Longmire) breaks the news to him, they both realize that they have to keep the patient alive, or else. Complicating matters is that Dillon, whose mob it is (Howard Da Silva) is sweet on Nurse Madison. (She does not reciprocate the feelings.)

   In spite of the well-worn plot, the cast is fine, the pacing is marred only by one of the hoods always whining comically about his health, and the ending has a lot of firepower – at least ten minutes’ worth. This was female star Adele Longmire’s first film, and while more than satisfactory in the role, she didn’t make another movie or TV appearance for another six years, with no more than a dozen additional credits on IMDb after that. And even though William Hopper was on the screen very early on (as a bank teller) for only maybe two or three seconds, I think I recognized him, but only because I went looking.



SHORT CUT TO HELL. Paramount Pictures, 1957. Robert Ivers, Georgann Johnson (debut of both), William Bishop, Jacques Aubuchon, Murvyn Vye. Screenplay by Ted Berkman and Rafael Blau, based on the screenplay by W. R. Burnett for This Gun For Hire (1942) and the novel A Gun for Sale by Graham Greene. Directed by James Cagney.

   With apologies to film critic Bosley Crowther, Short Cut to Hell certainly is.

   James Cagney’s debut as a director, and his only film as one, is a mess by any measure, not the least the absolute failure of this two stars making their less than stellar debut in two of the least charismatic screen performances imaginable.

   Watching this it is hard to believe the legendary Cagney who worked with some of the finest directors in Hollywood like Wellman, Walsh, and Curtiz, could have picked up so little or produced so pedestrian a film, pedestrian being a compliment because this often looks like a bad half hour episodic television cop show of the era.

   Whatever Graham Greene thought of the original 1942 version of his novel A Gun for Sale, filmed under its American title This Gun For Hire, there was no denying the extraordinary appeal of its cast: Alan Ladd as the emotionally and physically scarred gun man Raven, Veronica Lake as Ellen, a sexy smart young singer/magician caught up in Raven’s mission, Laird Cregar as the effete double crossing club owner who hires Raven and then betrays him, and Robert Preston as Ellen’s policeman boy friend.

   In that version, the plot moved from London to LA, and Raven changed from a man scarred by a cleft lip to one with a twisted wrist, Raven kills to cover up a crime for Cregar’s character who then betrays him to the police. Raven escapes swearing revenge on Cregar and whoever employs him, runs into nightclub performer Ellen on the way to LA for a job and ends up taking her hostage as she awakens his long buried humanity and sense of decency. Meanwhile Ellen’s boyfriend Robert Preston is the policeman hunting Raven, especially once he discovers Ellen is his hostage.

   That film made iconic stars of Ladd and Lake, who went on to be teamed in multiple films and was a major success for the studio.

   Not so much Short Cut to Hell.

   Here we meet Kyle (Robert Iver, changed from Raven and chosen because Chad seemed too tough sounding, I assume) who lives in a rundown hotel with his cat who he obsesses over while violently spurning the advances of the daughter of the manager (Yvette Vickers) who is attracted to and repelled by the slender slight killer.

   Kyle cold bloodedly assassinates a young engineer and his secretary who threaten to reveal a crime by his employers and meets effete Jacques Aubuchon at a small restaurant to be paid, not knowing Aubuchon plans to claim the sequential bills he has paid Kyle were stolen from him, and knowing Kyle let him shoot it out with the cops and die.

   Enter policeman William Bishop assigned to the case, whose performer girlfriend Glory (Georgann Johnson) is leaving for LA to work in a club rather than marry him.

   Kyle escapes and Kyle, Aubuchon, and Glory all end up on the train to LA where Kyle takes Glory hostage.

   From there the film pretty much follows the Greene novel and the 1942 film in terms of plot, but only in terms of plot.

   Otherwise it bears the same relationship to the classic film that Abbot and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde bears to the Oscar winning Frederic March version directed by Rudolph Mate.

   Let’s start with Ivers, a wanna be James Dean type with the charisma and screen presence of unbuttered toast. Perhaps he did better in later performances, but I see no evidence of that here. What is supposed to be a smoldering killer with budding humanity beneath the ice cold mask instead looks slightly petulant and somewhat constipated as if his chewing gum lost its flavor.

   I have seldom seen a worst performance in a film from a major studio, or a less compelling one. Compared to Ivers, Alan Ladd was Olivier.

   Our other debut Georgann Johnson as Glory isn’t much better though somewhat more animated and certainly better to look at. Without the teasing peek a boo mix of playful sensuality and smoky sexuality that Lake exuded, the character of Glory just doesn’t make much sense. There is no reason for her to feel anything but fear of Iver’s Kyle, so her protection of him and aid seem perverse and a bit stupid. Minus the visible sparks that flowed on screen between Ladd and Lake, the plot doesn’t make much sense without Greene’s novelist voice to carry us through.

   No one else fares much better. William Bishop was always better cast as charming bad guys, and Jacques Aubuchon has the unenviable task of following Laird Cregar in the role of the cowardly immoral and effete bad guy , and frankly rather than a sense of menace and vague depravity, he only communicates dyspepsia and the snobbery of a punctilious head waiter at a second rate French restaurant.

   Murvyn Vye appears as Aubuchon’s sadistic chauffeur in a noirish touch, but it is so blatant and so flat that it comes across as unintended humor rather than noir. Unintended humor is pretty much the definition of this film that is often laughably off key, thanks to the performers and script.

   One dramatic scene where Kyle kills a cat to keep it from revealing his hiding place is supposed to be played for his horror and anguish at what he has done, but plays more like a Monty Python sketch gone horribly wrong.

   Painful as it is to write, James Cagney comes in for his full blame for this as well. His direction is unimaginative and pedestrian. He disdains any use of light and shadow beyond the simplest of shots, his camera is objective and cold, mostly in two shots and long shots even when extreme closeups would seem unavoidable, and he shows no sense of pace or suspense much less cinematic flair unfolding his story as static as episodic television at its most unimaginative.

   It is not surprising a man of his taste didn’t venture into the director’s chair again after this. I applaud his recognition of his limits.

   Short Cut to Hell was remade in 1979 as made for TV movie with Robert Wagner and Lou Antonio. I only hope it was better than this.

   There is a language of film, and it is always disappointing when someone you expect to know it intimately proves deaf to its rhythms and lyric style. This film is actively bad, perhaps not a bomb, but empty and devoid of any sense of style. It isn’t Ed Wood, and I am not suggesting that, but the combination of James Cagney, Graham Greene, W. R. Burnett, and a classic film should have been more than this.

   It is currently on YouTube, and I can only say if your curiosity overcomes you, watch at your own peril.


WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS. 20th Century Fox, 1950. Dana Andrews, Gene Tierney, Gary Merrill, Bert Freed, Tom Tully, Karl Malden, Ruth Donnelly, Craig Stevens. Screenplay: Ben Hecht, based on the novel Night Cry by William L. Stuart.. Directed by Otto Preminger.

   A tough police detective, repeatedly in trouble for beating up suspects in cases he’s investigating, accidentally kills one of them, a guy being framed for knifing another guy after a dice game. After dumping the body, he finds someone else accused of the crime.

   That someone being the father of the girl he’s falling in love with, the estranged wife of the guy he killed. Whew. I hope I didn’t give too much away with all this plot summary. The fun in a movie like this is just to sit back and let events flow naturally.

– Reprinted from Movie.File.2, June 1980.


THE DEVIL THUMBS A RIDE. RKO Radio Pictures, 1947. Lawrence Tierney, Ted North, Nan Leslie, Betty Lawford. Based on the novel (McBride, hardcover, 1938) by co-screenwriter Robert C. duSoe. Director: Felix E. Feist.

   A traveling salesman, a happy-go-lucky sort of guy, with a good job and a wife waiting home for him, makes a serious mistake. He picks up a guy thumbing a ride. They then pick up two girls who are hoofing their way to Hollywood, then stop and have a party.

   A deadly one. Lawrence Tierney is perfect in the role of a killer on the run.With his cold and shifty eyes, he was made for the part. Everybody is fine in their roles, even the minor ones. I even recognized the voice of Arthur Q. Bryan as a local cop. (Among others, he played the role of Fibber McGee’s friend Doc Gamble on the radio.)

– Reprinted from Movie.File.2, June 1980.




ANDERS BODELSEN – Think of a Number. Harper & Row, hardcover, 1969. No paperback edition.

THE SILENT PARTNER. Carolco Pictures [Canada] 1978. With Elliott Gould, Christopher Plummer, Susannah York, Céline Lomez, and John Candy. Screenplay and co-directed by Curtis Hanson. Directed by Daryl Duke.

   A disappointing book turned into an intriguing film.

   THINK OF A NUMBER starts out with a neat little hook and develops it with some skill and suspense. Bork, a meek bank teller with a thoughtful streak, perceives hints that someone plans to rob his bank – probably his own station—during the busy Christmas Season, and decides to get in on the act himself.

   Bork makes a practice of hiding away large sums of cash, and when the robber strikes, he gets away with a few thousand Kroener while Bork carries off a few hundred thousand. And so crime pays…

   Until the robber decides to go after Bork’s share.

   What follows is a battle of wits between Bork and the Bad Guy, complicated by the appearance of a Mystery Lady who may be a key piece in the game. But what makes it readable is that the wits involved are genuinely sharp, with Bork somehow keeping one jump ahead of the others, even as they out-think him.

   Unfortunately, author Bodelson seems to have mapped out his ending without considering the characters, because in the last third of NUMBER, everybody gets stupid. And I mean Everybody: Bork, the mystery gal, the robber, even a cop on their tail… all of them, after being sharp-witted for so long, suddenly commit the most obvious and unforgivable mistakes imaginable. And I say “imaginable” because what we have here is clearly a case of a writer shepherding his characters to a tidy ending that reads like the author himself descended from on high to personally arrange it.

   So when our neighbors to the North made this into the movie SILENT PARTNER, they wisely opted for a more convincing resolution, one that is rich in irony, yet seems to rise naturally from the characters. And it may be the casting, but those characters, as played by Elliott Gould, Susannah York and a nasty-nasty Christopher Plummer, seem more rounded and interesting than the predestined losers of Bodelson’s novel.

   I should add that there’s some surprisingly graphic violence here, mostly directed at women, but it helps that PARTNER is directed at a brisk pace, acted with enthusiasm, and written with an air of spontaneity that breathes freshness into every scene. This is a film not to be missed by lovers of tricky caper flicks who want to see a few new wrinkles in the celluloid fabric.

SAN QUENTIN. RKO Radio Pictures, 1946. Lawrence Tierney, Barton MacLane, Marian Carr, Harry Shannon, Carol Forman, Tony Barrett, Raymond Burr. Directed by Gordon Douglas.

   An out-and-out plea for prison reform, done in pseudo-documentary style, turns out to be a pretty good gangster movie. Lawrence Tierney plays an ex-con, former head of the Inmates Welfare League, who takes it personally when Barton MacLane makes a daring escape.

   And MacLane is a killer, no doubt about it. In his gang are Tony Barrett, one of my all0time favorite radio actors, and Raymond Burr, another voice from radio. (He also made it big on TV.) The acting is a little stiff at times, but the action is fast and furious.

– Reprinted from Movie.File.2, June 1980.




THE NARROW MARGIN. RKO, 1952. Charles McGraw, Marie Windsor, Jacqueline White, Queenie Leonard, David Clarke, Paul Maxey. Directed by Richard Fleischer; written by Earl Fenton, Martin Goldsmith and Jack Leonard. Nominated for an Oscar for Best Writing, Motion Picture Story, 1953.

   Narrow Margin is a film that will surprise and delight the viewer who comes to it without expecting too much. Like Fleischer’s other noir classic, Violent Saturday, it’s taut, professional, and engaging without being as riveting or moving as a film like Out of the Past or Detour.

   I place that caveat up front because it’s easy for a film buff to come to this movie with great expectations. Director Richard Fleischer showed a lot of promise early in his career and The Narrow Margin was one of his most promising efforts. Then, too, the script is coauthored by Martin Goldsmith, whose novel and screenplay for Detour formed the basis of one of the undisputed classics of the film noir.

   In fact there are a few echoes of that earlier work in this one, particularly in the relationship between Charles McGraw as a down-at-the-heels cop on the verge of corruption and Marie Windsor as the shrill, shrewish, shrike o! a Gangster’s Widow whom he is assigned to escort by train to testify at a trial. Both Goldsm1th and Fleischer steer clear of the deeper possibilities inherent in the story, though, and concentrate instead on the superficial aspects of McGraw’s mission.

   Fortunately, having decided to be superficial, they proceed to be stylish as well. The script, terse and occasionally witty, serves the plot and actors very nicely indeed,  and the camerawork, roving up and down the narrow corridors and in and out of the cramped compartments of the train where most of the action is set, earns top marks for graceful planning.

   The choreography here comes across with subtle dexterity as well: As the characters move about, they alternate between clumsy struggles against their restricted environment and a smooth, natural flow inside it, impressive and suspenseful either way. And one particularly nasty fight inside a traveling compartment not only predates the Sean Connery/Robert Shaw set-to in From Russia with Love, but also excels it.

   And now a word about the Cast.

   It attains the remarkable felicity that seems reserved only for B-Movies, where there are no Stars to tailor scripts for. The Narrow Margin like Mask of Dimitrios or And Then There Were None, is a film where the Character Actors have taken over,. and it is also one· of those rare occasions where they have decent material to work with.

   As the brassy widow central to the plot, Marie Windsor caps off a career of playing schemers, gold-diggers and ladies of negotiable virtue. To paraphrase the joke, one watches her in this film and gets the feeling that you could go to the dictionary, look up “sleazey” and find her picture.

   An unknown actor named Paul Maxey does a very nice turn as an enigmatic, grossly obese Railroad Cop (and the camera makes the most of him navigating his bulk relentlessly through the dwarfed corridors) but the truly outstanding role goes to Charles McGraw as the cop, distrusted by his superiors, blamed for the death of his partner, and sorely tempted by the bribes of his adversaries.

   Charles McGraw spent his life doing small parts in B-Movies and smaller parts in A-Films. Fans with good memories might recall him as the kindly doctor in The Wonderful Country or the inept comic chauffeur in Once More My Darling, but his major claim to fame was as one of the two assassins (William Conrad was the other) in the 1946 film of The Killers.

   Possessed of extraordinarily beady eyes for a mammal and the raspiest voice since Lionel Stander, McGraw always looked just a little too tough to play a hero, as if any bad guys who came up against him just obviously wouldn’t have a chance.

   By the time of The Narrow Margin,  however, he had already been hopelessly typecast as the Muscle Heavy in dozens of westerns, costumers and gangster pies, all of which add a pleasant tension to his character when he wrestles with the temptation to either sell out his traveling companion or simply strangle her to shut her up. It’s one of those engagingly off-beat performances in a quirkily enjoyable film that seem to have happened only (and all too rarely) in B-pictures.

— Reprinted from A Shropshire Sleuth #37, January 1988.


RAILROADED! PRC, 1947. John Ireland, Sheila Ryan, Hugh Beaumont, Jane Randolph. Screenplay by John C. Higgins, based on an original story by Gertrude Walker. Director: Anthony Mann.

   A cop breaks in on a holdup in a beauty parlor, is killed for his trouble, and the murder is blamed on the kid who drives the truck used for the getaway. The boy has no alibi, and when the evidence builds up against him, only his sister and mother believe his story.

   Not a bad beginning, but the plot jumps the track when John Ireland, who plays the killer, makes a play for the sister – why, I have no idea. (The slugfest fight scene between the sister and Ireland’s girl friend is worth the price of admission, though.)

– Reprinted from Movie.File.2, June 1980.



NOTE: For a longer and a much more insightful review of the film, check out Jonathan’s take on it here.



HOUSE OF CARDS. Universal Pictures, 1968. George Peppard, Inger Stevens, Orson Welles, Keith Michell, Perette Prader, Barnaby Shaw, Genvieve Cluny, Maxine Audley, William Job. Screenplay: James P. Bonner (Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr.), based on the novel by Stanley Ellin. Directed by John Guillermin.

   The film opens with a the city of Paris shot from the surface of the Seine as if the viewer is floating lazily along. A man is watching from the Pont des Arts and as the POV changes we see the body he has spotted floating in the river. Soon a fisherman hooks the body and pulls it ashore, the corpse of a young well dressed man, The police are called and the man on the bridge watches as the body is recovered, a cruel smile on his lips.

   The camera focuses on the man on the bridge blacking everything else out and the colorful titles suddenly fill the screen

   Re-opening when they have finished on American Reno Davis (George Peppard) getting beaten badly in the ring in a prize fight and quickly tossing in the towel.

   He’s an ex boxer with a chequered career who has been kicking around Europe for six years trying to write something important, but mostly just avoiding living an ordinary life or going back to the states to work on his brother’s chicken farm (“Do you know what time chickens get up?”). He’s not lazy, just listless and without any real direction.

   That changes that night as he and his friend Leo are traveling back to Paris and someone takes a shot at them.

   That someone turns out to be Paul de Villemont (Barnaby Shaw) age eleven who has stolen his mother’s revolver.

   Returning to the villa where Paul lives, Reno meets his over protective American mother, Anne (Inger Stevens), and somewhat cooler of head demands the boy apologize leaving on good terms.

   The next day as he is planning to move on from Paris Anne shows up in a Rolls and offers him a job as Paul’s tutor and bodyguard, primarily to teach the boy how to be a boy and an American since his father, a French military hero from a distinguished military family , was killed in Algeria.

   The money is good, Anne is beautiful, and Reno has nothing better to do so he agrees.

   The boy very much needs to discover childhood. The household he lives in is that of an aristocratic French family run off their estates in French Algeria in the recent conflict and living in the past dreaming of past glories and injuries and something more sinister.

   There is the boy’s grandmother (Patience Collier) a cold-hearted type who makes the family watch home movies of their days in Algeria every night with Paul’s creepy aunts, uncles, and cousins (Maxine Audley, Paul Bayliss, Ralph Michael), and the creepier secretary Bourdon (William Job) who was the man on the bridge. And of course there is beautiful Jeane-Marie (Perette Prader) a house-keeper who throws herself at Reno, as Anne does, both wanting something he’s not sure he wants to give.

   Then there is Dr. Morillion (Keith Michell) the imperious physician who lets Reno know he is not really welcome, that Anne is off limits because she is his patient being treated for a breakdown she recently was hospitalized for explaining her paranoia about Paul being kidnapped, and that he sees to Paul as well.

   At a party Reno meets Leschenhaut (Orson Welles) a friend of the family who feels him out on some distinctly fascist political opinions and the night ends with Reno decking the snide Morillion.

   Still Reno isn’t fired, and continues with Paul, still thinking Anne drinks too much and is mentally unstable even claiming his predecessor was murdered, the man found drowned in the Seine. That paranoia seems more real when Bourdon and the family chauffeur try to kill him while he is fishing on the Seine with Paul then kidnap the boy and frame Reno for the murder of his friend Leo. And when he escapes the police and returns to the villa it has been closed and everyone is gone.

   House of Cards is based on a novel by Stanley Ellin which came from his later period, and while critics in general tend to dismiss some of the slicker novels of this era like The Valentine Estate and The Bind, they are well written, entertaining thrillers with complex heroes who have a bit more to them than just black and white heroics. Like Reno Davis in this book and film, his protagonists are people not quite committed to ordinary life who don’t fully fit into society. They are on a high order of well written and involving suspense novels.

   Hunted by the police, Reno will discover Anne had every right to be paranoid, uncover a world wide fascist conspiracy led by Leschenhaut that even reaches into the States, be pitted against fanatics determined to take over government and put the “inferior” races in their place, and arranging for Reno and Anne to die in a car wreck.

   He and Anne will escape from a burning fortress, discover the secret of Paul’s honored father’s death, and he’ll join Anne in a race across France and Italy to rescue Paul from being modeled into a replacement for his father, all ending in a confrontation in the Coliseum in Rome with Leschinhaut and a brainwashed Paul with a gun, coming full circle from the opening.

   Granted this is all sub-Hitichcock, and the film takes some liberties with Ellin’s novel, but I’ve always liked the film and the book, and have some fondness for Peppard’s films of this era anyway (The Executioners, The Third Day, Operation Crossbow,The Groundstar Conspiracy). I suppose it depends on your tolerance for Peppard, but mine is fairly high.

   Here he is perfectly cast as the guarded somewhat footloose Reno, and Stevens brings real vulnerability to a role that makes you regret she never got to play a real Hitchcock ice blonde. Welles is Welles, but not tiresomely so and he does project menace in a minor if perverse Sidney Greenstreet key while Keith Michell manages to be equal parts superior, snide, and threatening (he and Peppard also appeared together in The Executioners).

   John Guillermin captures a grittier view of Paris than say Stanley Donen’s Charade, but it is closer to the city I knew, without romanticizing the grungier areas or over relying on the usual tour of the high spots, and the film makes good use of several locations including at least one very good stunt involving leaping through a second story window to an awning below.

   For some reason filmmakers always make Paris feel claustrophobic and crowded, and this one opens the city up. Unlike too many American films shot on location in Paris it isn’t half travelogue. Like actual people who live there, no one feels the need to go to the Eiffel Tower or Notre Dame or drive beneath the Arc de Triumph just because it is there.

   Like Donen’s Charade and Arabesque, House of Cards it is modeled on Hitchcock with a mix of suspense, sex, sudden violence, and even some comedy. And while it lacks the star power of those two films and the genius of Hitchcock, it is handsome, diverting, has an intriguing score, beautiful cinematography, and attractive leads, with a plot perhaps more relevant today with the rise of extremism in Europe and elsewhere.

   It entertains and won’t insult your intelligence, and those are fairly high bars for any suspense film.


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