Crime Films


REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:

   

BORREGO. Saban Films, 2022. Lucy Hale, Leynar Gomez, Jorge E. Jimenez, Nicholas Gonzalez, Olivia Trujillo. Written & directed by Jesse Harris. Currently streaming on Netflix.

   The opening is exceedingly promising. Working alone in the empty desert under the hot California sun, botanist Elly (Lucy Hale) is both focused and distracted. While she is squarely devoted to her botanical survey, she’s also lost in her own thoughts and mourning the loss of her younger sister. But the desert has its own plans for her.

   Unbeknownst to her, she’s not the only one who is toiling in semi-solitude in the great emptiness of eastern San Diego County. Also out there is Guillermo (Jorge E. Jimenez), an enforcer for an unnamed Mexican drug cartel and father-and-daughter duo, local sheriff Jose (Nicholas Gonzalez) and Alex (Olivia Trujillo).

   The inciting event that interrupts Elly’s solitude is the type of thing that happens mostly in the movies: a plane crash. While out in the desert examining local flora, she bears witness to a small plane going down in the desert. The pilot – the only one on board – survives. But he’s not an innocent traveler. Far from it. Rather, he is also working for the drug cartel and is ferrying highly dangerous fentanyl across the California-Mexico border.

   The movie thus changes course and the narrative thrust comes into focus. Tomas (Leynar Gomez), the pilot, takes Elly hostage and demands she take him and the remaining pills to the Salton Sea in Imperial County. What follows is a survival thriller that runs out of steam well before the movie ends. While Elly and Tomas bond over their shared life struggles and tragedies, Guillermo seeks to retrieve the drugs and to kill all who get in his way. And the sheriff is trying to stop any further bloodshed. It’s all rather predictable and formulaic and doesn’t really offer the viewer anything refreshingly new.

   The best parts of the movie are those that utilize the stunningly empty landscapes of the California desert. The cinematography, especially in the first thirty minutes or so, is quite good and the movie is effective in transporting the viewer to a land that is equally enchanting as it is dangerous. Like Budd Boetticher’s minimalist westerns with Randolph Scott, the landscape is as much as character as any of those portrayed by the actors.

   But unlike Boetticher’s films, the characters in Borrego aren’t complex, multilayered, or particularly compelling. This new release, at its best, is a decent adventure yarn. At its worst, it’s a socially conscious message film that doesn’t seem to have anything more compelling to say other than drugs are bad and that they will not only ruin your life, but the lives of those you love.
   

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:

   

THE FULL TREATMENT.   Hammer Films/Columbia Pictures, UK, 1960. Also released as Stop Me Before I Kill. Claude Dauphin, Diane Cilento, Ronald Lewis, Francoise Rosnay. Screenplay by Ronald Scott Thorn based on his novel, with Val Guest, who also directed.

   Dr. David Prade: You know only the unsuccessful murderers disclose their crimes.

   Alan Colby: And the successful ones?

   Prade: Well, they derive their reward from a feeling of personal power.

   On their honeymoon Alan (Ronald Lewis) and Denise Colby (Diane Cilento) are involved in a terrible car wreck. Alan, a race car driver, is terribly injured and takes a long time to recover, and even when he comes out of the hospital he is still weak and suffering from nerves, tension, paranoia, and the psychological after effects of the traumatic event.

   He also fears he may be dangerous after he briefly tightens his hands around her neck during a passionate moment.

   On the Riviera to rest up they meet Dr. David Prade (Claude Dauphin … “He’s too elegant to be an aristocrat. Most aristocrats look like peasants.”) who takes an interest in them both despite Alan’s distrust and aggressive behavior (“…you’re refreshingly rude.”).

   Told by Denise about the accident, Prade reveals he is a psychiatrist, and that he fears Alan may suffer from repressed emotions that could make him dangerous to her and himself, but he overplays his hand and Alan and Denise decide to go back to London and try to start over.

   But things are no better in London, and Denise becomes increasingly concerned as she and Alan argue and he becomes more violent. When she learns Prade has followed them to London in his concern for Alan, she finally persuades Alan to see him in his Harley Street offices.

   Under intense therapy, he slowly begins to convince Alan to trust him and reveals the trauma that is causing all the problems. Alan is cured and sent home to Denise before they fly out the next day for the start of the racing season.

   But when Prade visits the next morning Denise is gone and there are signs of a violent struggle and bloody second hand medical instruments like the ones Alan described under hypnosis as the kind he would use if he was disposing of Denise’s body having killed her.

   Prade persuades Alan to let him institutionalize him before going to the police, but on the way to the asylum they are in a wreck, Prade is knocked unconscious and Alan flees.

   Hiding out on the Riviera Alan watches the London papers expecting to read about Denise’s body being found, and that he is wanted by the police, but then sitting at an outdoor bistro he sees a woman that looks suspiciously like Denise and watches as she climbs on a yacht, owned by Prade…

   The Full Treatment based on a novel by fine British suspense novelist and humorist Ronald Scott Thorn (Second Opinion, Twin Serpents, Upstairs Downstairs — the Michael Craig movie, not the Masterpiece series) was directed and co-written by director Val Guest (Penny Princess, The Runaway Bus, The Quatermass Experience, The Day the Earth Caught Fire, Where the Spies Are) for Hammer Studios.

   Though this isn’t the only suspense film made by Hammer in this period, it is closer to the Hitchcockian model than films like Maniac, Sudden Fear, and The Snorkel that all had more shocker and borderline horror elements. It’s very much a psychological suspense film and not a shocker.

   The cast is excellent: Lewis’s well controlled and believably dangerous protagonist; Cilento’s sexy (there is a brief but distant nude scene) and concerned French wife; and Dauphin’s enigmatic Prade, by turns a bit creepy and yet believably solicitous and professional, all hit their marks perfectly. The suspense is genuine and the black and white photography gorgeous and the script intelligent.

   Admittedly the movie runs a little long, and perhaps some of the early scenes before they reach London could be tightened or even eliminated, but overall it’s an effective suspense film that ties what seems like loose ends up in the final moments. What holes there are in the plot are no worse than the ones in most Hitchcock films as far as that goes.

   I don’t want to oversell this, and I am a fan of Thorn, a suspense novelist in the tradition of Winston Graham, but it is a solid entertaining and attractive suspense film done on a decent budget and well handled all around.

   

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:

   

MY LEARNED FRIEND. Ealing, 1943. Will Hay, Claude Hulbert, Mervyn Johns, and Ernest Thesiger. Written by Angus MacPhail & John Dighton. Directed by Basil Dearden & Will Hay. Currently streaming on Plex.

   Will Hay — for reasons that escape me — was an enduring star of British stage, screen and airwaves. His observations seem obvious to me, his delivery deliberate, and his timing tortuous. Still, you can’t argue with Success (Or rather, you can, but It won’t listen,) he made a score of well-received films, and I actually enjoyed this one.

   Hay stars as Will Fitch, a former barrister brought up on charges of fraud, who easily gets himself acquitted with a flurry of wheezy old jokes, then invites the flummoxed Crown Prosecutor, fittingly named Claude Babbington, back to his digs for a drink.

   But there they are confronted by a recently released felon gone mad (a delightfully miscast Mervyn Johns, whom you may remember as Bob Cratchit to Alastair Sim’s Scrooge.) who has sworn to kill everyone who had a hand in sending him up, and just wants to give Hay a heads-up you know, because he’s last on the list.

   Duly alarmed, Fitch and Babbington set about trying to thwart the madman by getting to his prospective victims first, following clues he has thoughtfully provided them. All they manage, though, is to arrive late or at the wrong places and get themselves suspected and ultimately hunted by Scotland Yard.

   It’s a tenuous concept for a comedy, but it gets more than its share of laughs, mostly because Babbington, Fitch’s partner in not-solving crimes is played by veteran comic actor Claude Hulbert.

   Hulbert specialized in playing the Silly Ass, and even essayed a turn as Algy Longworth in Bulldog Jack (aka: Alias Bulldog Drummond). Everyone involved had the wisdom to give him free rein here, and he’s simply and completely hilarious, even when the jokes are not. Indeed, he gets a tour de force dance number that he handles with amazing gracefulness (sorry) and split-second timing.

   Friend ultimately devolves into a farcical set-to inside an explosive-laden Big Ben, but by that time I had surrendered to Hulbert’s charm and found myself enjoying this nonsense in spite of myself. You might, too.

   

INSIDE MAN. Universal Pictures, 2006. Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, Jodie Foster, Christopher Plummer, Willem Dafoe, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Carlos Andrés Gómez, Kim Director, James Ransone. Director: Spike Lee.

   This is a heist film, but a puzzling one, as the thieves seem more interested in stalling around than they are in negotiating their demands in exchange for the release of their hostages, several dozen of them. In fact it gradually seems clear that the hostages are an integral part of their well-constructed plan: for some unknown reason, they don’t appear to be interested in the money at all.

   Complicating matters for Denzel Washington as the head negotiator for the NYPD is the presence of Jodie Foster as a “fixer” whose client is the aristocratic owner of the bank (well played by aristocratic Christopher Plummer). She has something on the mayor, and that allows her carte blanche to do whatever she pleases with the hostage situation.

   As expected with a Spike Lee production, the camera work is terrific, the actors are superb, the several comic side bits are wonderful, and the story simply didn’t work for me. The thieves (as well as the hostages) are fully masked at all times, and in so doing are essentially anonymous. There is a reason for this, from their point of view. It is part of their plan, but why Clive Owen agreed to be in this picture with his face covered 90 percent of the time is a good question.

   Denzel Washington is, as always, the strong figure in the film, cool and collected, always with a good quip when a good quip is exactly what’s needed. Jodie Foster’s role, on the other hand, simply fizzles out, especially at the end, exactly when a good ending is needed. Not her fault, though.

   The movie did well at the box office, and that’s the bottom line, so you may call me Mr. Grumpy when I point out that no matter how elaborately the thieves’ plan was worked out in advance, it just doesn’t work. I don’t want to give away anything, but the security cameras watching the doors before the thieves break in *were* working, weren’t they?

   

NOBODY. Universal, 2021. Bob Odenkirk, Alexey Serebryakov, Connie Nielsen, Christopher Lloyd, Michael Ironside. Director: Ilya Naishuller.

   From all outward appearances, Hutch Mansell is a perfectly ordinary guy with a totally boring life. Up in the morning with his wife and two kids, off to work at  some uninspired factory job, home again, and off to bed. Until, that is, a home invasion initiates a chain of events that has him (and his father, played by Christopher Lloyd) up against a Russian mobster whose only wish is to kill him.

   Not so easily done, though. Mansell is not the wimp his current life says he is. The Russian mobster does not have a fighting chance. Mansell has a past life that’s apparently been a secret for some time, and once the secret’s out, it’s all out Gangbusters.

   Audiences usually enjoy revenge movies – once Mansell’s family is threatened, there’s no stopping him – and this movie is no exception. It’s been quite popular, even with the critics.

   I demur, however. The last rather lengthy scene in which the Russian kingpin and his dozens of minions are utterly wiped off the face of the earth? Lots and lots of firepower in this one. Me, I dozed off. Utterly boring — and yet, I admit, enjoyable enough if you’re into movies like this. Here’s another one.

NEW ORLEANS AFTER DARK. Allied Artists, 1958. Stacy Harris, Louis Sirgo, Ellen Moore. Director: John Sledge.

   According to TV Guide, this sad imitation of Dragnet was based on a television series. It took some searching, but I finally discovered that Stacy Harris was also the lead on an obscure syndicated series called N.O.P.D. so that must be the one but that’s all I know about it.

   This movie version concerns dope traffic coming into New Orleans, and two homicide detective who investigate when two showgirls who use the stuff are bumped off. The motive is not exactly clear, but apparently there is a chance they’ll talk if they’re arrested and forced to go without their regular supply.

   Stacy Harris was a veteran radio star — in fact, he was the leading man on This Is Your FBI for most of its eight years on the air — and while his voice is about twice the size he actually is, he does a decent job, but everyone else in this movie acts as stiff as a board.

   At best, this would be fifth-rate TV. How’d they ever come to make a whole movie of it?

– Very slightly revised from Mystery*File 26, December 1990.

   

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:

   

OUTSIDE THE WALL. Universal, 1950.Richard Basehart, Marilyn Maxwell, Signe Hasso, Dorothy Hart, John Hoyt, Joseph Pevney, Lloyd Gough, and Harry Morgan. Written by Henry Edward Helseth and Crane Wilbur. Directed by Crane Wilbur.

   No classic, but it’ll keep you watching.

   Richard Basehart plays Larry Martin, a convict just shy of 30, released after fifteen years in prison (do the math.) At loose ends on the outside, he gets a job in a TB sanitarium. A bit of exposition shows Martin to be tough and savvy, but lacking in social skills and completely at a loss with women — elements that will figure into the plot just ahead.

   About this time Martin sees newspaper headlines about a million-dollar heist of an armored car, the gang decimated in a shoot-out that left only two at large with the loot — and recognizes photos of head-perp Jack Bernard (John Hoyt) from the time he spent in stir. And as plot would have it, a few days later Bernard is admitted to the sanitarium under an assumed name, near death from TB.

   All this time, Martin has been struggling to establish a relationship with his co-workers, passing over pretty and pleasant nurse Celia (Signe Hasso) for greedy blonde Charlotte (Marilyn Maxwell.) When Charlotte lets him know she wants the “finer things” in life, Martin accepts a job offer from the fugitive Bernard.

   It seems Bernard is paying protection to his ex-wife Ann (venomous Dorothy Hart) and needs Martin to deliver it while he’s laid up. Ann only seems interested in how soon Bernard will croak, but it soon develops that she has a few nasty friends (including a sadistic Harry Morgan) who think Martin must be the other survivor of the heist, and their ticket to the hot millions.

   From this point on, Outside the Wall gets agreeably tricky and enjoyably violent. Helseth wrote the novel basis of the classic Cry of the City, and he has a sure feel for dishonor among thieves. He’s not helped at all by Crane Wilbur’s flat-footed direction, and neither are the actors, but Richard Basehart gives out with a neatly-played character — smart and tough among the low-lifes he grew up with, but lost and vulnerable with ordinary folk, and quite unable to cope with the decent woman who wants to save him.

   The result is a film that mostly misses its potential. But it comes close enough to stay with.

T-MEN. Eagle-Lion Films, 1947. Dennis O’Keefe, Mary Meade, Alfred Ryder, Wallace Ford, June Lockhart, Charles McGraw, Jane Randolph. Narrated by Reed Hadley (uncredited). Director of Photography: John Alton. Directed by Anthony Mann.

   Although the continual narration turns off some viewers, or so I’ve been told, T-Men is one of the better semi-documentary noir films of all time. It’s the US Treasury Department which takes its place in the spotlight, with gang of counterfeiter the target of the agents working there. The story may be a little long in the telling, as the two men working undercover work their way through the world of the underground by starting in Detroit to establish their “credentials” before heading to the West Coast to match their superior plates with the gang’s top-notch paper, imported from China.

   Both Dennis O’Keefe (as one of the agents) and Wallace Ford (an aging hanger-on with the gang) turn in fine performances, but the star of the show is John Alton, as head cinematographer, along with director Anthony Mann. Between them they came up with a film perfectly shot in pristine black-and-white, using lot of unusual angles and closeups that add immensely to the story, not distract from it.

   I do not know why Mary Meade, playing a nightclub photographer received second billing. She was on the screen only for a few minutes total. It’s mostly a men’s affair. On the other hand, June Lockhart makes the most of her very short appearance, while Jane Randolph makes a even greater impression as a villainess close to the top of California gang’s hierarchy.

   If you are a fan of film noir and have not yet seen this, please do. You can thank me later.

   

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:

   

LURE OF THE SWAMP. Regal Films/20th Century Fox, 1957. Marshall Thompson, Willard Parker, Joan Vohs, Jack Elam, Leo Gordon, and Joan Lora. Screenplay by William George, from the novel Hell’s Our Destination, by Gil Brewer (Gold Medal, paperback original, 1953). Directed by Hubert Cornfield.

   No great shakes, but a solid bit of pulp from a director with a feel for two-bit paperbacks.

   Marshall Thompson stars as Simon Lewt, a good ol’ boy making a meager living on the Florida bayou. As the film, opens, he’s approached by a furtive-looking city-slicker (Willard Parker) with a heavy suitcase, who wants a guide into the swamp — only so far and no farther. The stranger goes on ahead a short distance, and when he returns his suitcase is noticeably lighter.

   Hmmmm…

   The plot quickly thickens when Simon goes into town a few days later and sees the stranger’s face on the front page of a newspaper, above the headline BANK ROBBERY SUSPECT MURDERED. About the same time, strangers hit town: A businessman on vacation, looking for good fishing (Burly Leo Gordon) a mysterious blonde (Joan Vohs) and ratty-looking Jack Elam, who just wanders out of the swamp and moves in with Simon. All three are obviously at odds with each other, all three know Simon can lead them to the stashed loot, and Simon finds himself holding low cards in a game that makes its own rules.

   There are no surprises here, but Director Cornfield moves it right along, and evokes a real sense of claustrophobic angst out of Marshall Thompson (never the most electrifying of actors) finding himself mired in a crime that just seems to go on and on.

   The ending is entirely too pat, but here, as in The Third Voice, and whatever he did of Night of the Following Day, Hubert Cornfield showed a feel for the essence of the classic paperback that was decades ahead of fashion.

   

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:

   

THE SCARF. Gloria Productions, US, 1951. John Ireland, Mercedes McCambridge, James Barton, Basil Ruysdale, Emlyn Williams, David Bauer (as David Wolfe) and King Donovan. Written by E A Dupont, Isadore Goldsmith, and Edwin Rolfe. Directed by E A Dupont.

   Robert Bloch contended that The Scarf was ripped off from his book of the same name, but the spirit of the thing comes closer to Goodis than Bloch, and aside from the title and a bit of 40s pop-psychology, it’s an original film — not a complete success, but strange enough to keep watching.

   John Ireland, a couple years after All the King’s Men and struggling to achieve leading-man status, stars as an amnesiac escapee from a state mental hospital who makes his way across the desert and onto the poultry farm of philosophical turkey-rancher James Barton, who asks him not so much about his crime as about his place in the universe.

   Okay, that caught me by surprise. As did a too-clever cop who turns up to trade quotations from the great thinkers with Barton. Later on we get David Wolfe (an actor who spent most of his career in uncredited bit parts) as Level Louie, a thoughtful bartender, and Mercedes McCambridge (also of …King’s Men) as “Cash ‘n’ Carry Connie” a torch singer in one of the seediest bars in the B-movies. The sight of McCambridge slinking awkwardly about this poverty-row dive trying to be Lizabeth Scott is hysterical in every sense of the word, but somehow it’s not without a certain desperate charm, as one studies the actress and the character and wonders how a woman could fall so low.

   All this is directed by E.A. Dupont, himself once a director of note, now fallen on harder times, who focuses more on the characters than the plot, which is a good thing because the story is a rather silly affair of murder supposedly committed by a mental patient but actually done in a moment of mad passion by the most obvious suspect in the film. I don’t mean to sound dismissive, though; The Scarf, for all its faults and pretensions, carries enough loopy appeal to keep lovers of strange movies happy enough for its brief running time.

   

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