Crime Films


REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:

   

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.

   

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:

   

THE ASPHALT JUNGLE. MGM, 1950. Sterling Hayden, Louis Calhern, Jean Hagen, James Whitmore, Sam Jaffe, John McIntire, Marc Lawrence, Anthony Caruso, Marilyn Monroe. Based on the novel by W. R. Burnett. Director: John Huston.

   Directed by John Huston, written by Huston and Ben Maddow, compared to Phil Rosen’s take on Dangerous Crossing [reviewed here ], The Asphalt Jungle mines W. R. Burnett’s novel for dramatic potential that I doubt even Burnett knew was there. It features career-capping performances by Sterling Hayden and Louis Calhern as players at the top and bottom ends of a jewel heist plotted by Sam Jaffe, backed up by a number of memorable cameos from such capable players as James Whitmore, Jean Hagen, Marc Lawrence, Barry Kelley and Marilyn Monroe.

   Huston’s pre-fab defeatism melds very nicely with scenarist Ben (Johnny Guitar) Maddow’s genuinely subversive left-wing sensibilities into a film that has become a well-deserved classic.

   Come to that, if you wanted a good notion of what a subversive screen-play really means, The Asphalt Jungle offers a prime example: To seemingly digress for a moment, novelist and screenwriter Borden (Red River, Winchester ’73, etc.), Chase once said that the secret of writing a good movie was to put in a part for John McIntire. McIntire appears (made up to look just exactly like the young Walter Huston) here as a Police Commissioner whose integrity stands out in sharp contrast to the corrupt tone of the film as a whole.

   Indeed, The Asphalt Jungle makes quite a point of portraying its nominal “criminals” as possessed of more honor than their “respectable” counter-parts. So one could well wonder what-the-hell he’s doing there at all, except that his whole character was probably written in as a sop to the censors.

   Yet even while making this nod to Convention, Maddow and Huston manage to sneak in a nice zinger: Late in the film, McIntire tells a bunch of reporters what a fine lot Policemen are, on the whole. And he’s convincing. For a moment, his speech almost seems to negate the whole tone of the film that preceded it. Then he concludes by characterizing Hayden, the one surviving member of the gang, as a “vicious hoodlum. A Man without human feelings or pity.”

   Cut from there to a shot of Hayden (WARNING!) racing back to his old Kentucky homestead, to die in the clean air (END OF WARNING!) and the perceptive viewer suddenly sees things that were never dreamt of in McIntire and his whole philosophy. A nice touch, just one of many in this film.

— Reprinted from A Shropshire Sleuth #76, March 1996.

   

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:

   

EMILY THE CRIMINAL. 2022. Aubrey Plaza, Theo Rossi, Megalyn Echikunwoke, Gina Gershon, Jonathan Avigdori, Bernardo Badillo, Brandon Sklenar. Written and directed by John Patton Ford.

   Aubrey Plaza, who stars in Emily the Criminal, came up in the comedy world. I have to confess that I was mostly unfamiliar with her work until I saw her in Ingrid Goes West (2017), an exceptional dark comedy about a young woman who moves to Los Angeles in the hopes of befriending a social media celebrity. Plaza was very good in that. In John Patton Ford’s Emily the Criminal, she’s exceptional.

   New Jersey-native and art school graduate Emily Benetto is saddled with debt. She is working a dead-end catering job in downtown Los Angeles. It’s clear she’s capable of far more. But something is holding her back – a felony assault conviction from years ago. This, along with a brash take-no-prisoners attitudes, makes it virtually impossible for her to get a “normal” job. When given the opportunity to make some money off the books, Emily more or less jumps at the chance. It turns out that this chance to make $200 isn’t exactly legal. (No surprise there!). After initially walking away, Emily decides to work as a dummy shopper for a credit card fraud outfit.

   As in the case of any movie with a titular anti-hero and one with a noir bent as well, things escalate. What starts off as a one-time criminal act turns into something more substantial. Her romantic alliance with one of the members of the Lebanese credit card fraud outfit forces her to act both bolder and more recklessly. Pretty soon, it’s Emily who is calling the shots. As things get more daring and violent, Emily emerges as a new person – she’s no longer Emily the Caterer. She’s now Emily the criminal and is more than willing to use weapons to get her way.

   Numerous commentators have remarked on the film’s social commentary, citing Gen Z’s large student debt and the unfairness of the job market. I get it. Those elements are definitely in the movie, most notably when Emily – in her last ditch attempt to leave the credit card fraud world behind – is asked to work a full-time job as an unpaid intern.

   But to me, those elements are secondary to the film’s essence as a thriller. A very good one at that. Lean and barebones, Emily the Criminal works almost entirely due to Plaza’s commitment to the role and Ford’s refusal to ever dumb down his screenplay to make it more palatable to a wider audience. This isn’t a film for everybody, but for those who enjoy pulse pounding anti-hero films that refrain on passing moral judgments on their protagonists, it’s definitely worth your time.

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:

   

THE INFORMER. Warner Brothers (UK), 2019. Joel Kinnaman, Rosamund Pike, Common, Clive Owen, Ana de Armas, Eugene Lipinski. Based on the novel Tre sekunder (Three Seconds) by Anders Roslund & Börge Hellström. Directed by Andrea Di Stefano. Currently streaming on Netflix.

   This is a bleak one. There’s not much levity or humor in The Informer. Rather, it’s a grim, brutal, and downbeat thriller about corrupt men and even crueler men. Based upon the Swedish crime novel Tre sekunder (2009), The Informer is at once neo-noir cinema, a police procedural, and a gangster film. Set in the gritty streets of New York, the movie doesn’t necessarily break any new ground. But it does provide – given you’re in the right frame of mind for such a depressing feature – mild escapism and momentary thrills.

   Swedish-American actor Joel Kinnaman portrays Peter (Piotr) Koslow, a Polish-American veteran who is now working as an informant for the FBI. In an off-the-book operation, FBI agents Keith Montgomery (Clive Owen) and Erica Wilcox (Rosamund Pike) have arranged for Koslow’s early release from state prison on a murder charge. In exchange, he must infiltrate a Polish drug dealing crime syndicate and inform on them. The FBI’s ultimate target: a seedy Polish fentantyl dealer known as The General.

   In typical noir fashion, everything goes wrong for Peter. And from there, it only gets worse. Not only is he present when one of the Polish gangsters kills a NYPD organized crime cop, he also is cut loose by the FBI and left to fend for himself. Fortunately, a NYPD detective (Common) comes to learn that the feds aren’t exactly playing by the rules and makes a commitment to protect Peter’s wife and daughter.

   Except for the final half hour of the film which feels oddly disjointed, the majority of The Informer runs smoothly and at an even clip. The film – refreshingly, I should emphasize – never tries to do more than necessary to make the narrative move forward. There are no attempts to be unduly clever, witty, or self-referential.

   As far as I can tell, The Informer – despite a solid cast – went relatively unnoticed by filmgoers. It’s not hard to figure out why. There’s definitely a limited appeal and audience for such downbeat crime films. There’s no razzle dazzle, buddy comedy, or dark humor here. Just a character story of a man who gets in over his head and then some. The closest point of comparison that I could think of is 21 Bridges (2019), also a New York crime film that had nary a happy moment.

   

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:

   

VICE SQUAD. United  Artists, 1953. Edward G. Robinson, Paulette Goddard, Porter Hall, Adam Williams, Jay Adler, Joan Vohs, and Lee Van Cleef. Screenplay by Lawrence Roman, from the novel Harness Bull, by Leslie T. White. Directed by Arnold Laven.

   A B-movie with a bit of faded star power. Not always exciting, but when it works, it works well.

   Edward G Robinson runs the Detective Bureau of an unnamed agency that looks a lot like LAPD and since the film starts with a cop-killing, he pretty much has his work cut out for him. He takes time to expose a fortune hunter posing as an Italian Count, and listen to an underworld informant (Jay Adler, in a nicely-done bit part) with a tip on a forthcoming bank job, but his primary focus is on the murdered officer — until the killing is tied in with the hold-up.

   Screen-writer Lawrence Roman (whose credits include A Kiss Before Dying) does a fine job of switching focus between the cops and the hoodlums, delineating the characters, bringing out internal conflicts in both camps, and generally pointing up the similarities in their methodical approach — Robinson often seems to have as little regard for the niceties of the law as the bad guys — while the hoods prepare for their caper and the cops prepare to close in on them.

   Arnold Laven was a workhorse director who showed flashes of talent, given a decent script. Slaughter on Tenth Avenue (1957) and Rough  Night in Jericho  (1967) offer lively action scenes and moments of real feeling surprising in rough-and-ready movies. Vice Squad doesn’t achieve much emotional intensity, but it builds a certain amount of suspense as it moves along, and really comes alive in a final chase-and-shootout in a rotting warehouse.

   By the way, second-billed Paulette Goddard gets about five minutes of screen time, shot on two sets with the look of being rushed through in a single day — talk about faded star power! But what really bothers me is that this movie is all about unraveling a murder and bank robbery.

   So why did they call it Vice Squad?

   

EAST MEETS WEST:
AKIRA KUROSAWA ADAPTS ED MCBAIN
by Matthew R. Bradley

   

   Akira Kurosawa’s Tengoku to jigoku (Heaven and Hell, aka High and Low; 1963), based on Ed McBain’s tenth 87th Precinct mystery, King’s Ransom (1959), epitomizes a pair of fascinating, complementary trends. One was the penchant of Kurosawa, arguably Japan’s greatest filmmaker, to adapt writers as diverse as William Shakespeare (Throne of Blood, 1957; Ran, 1985), Fyodor Dostoyevsky (The Idiot, 1951), and Maxim Gorky (The Lower Depths, 1957). The other is the use of McBain’s all-American romans policiers for films from France (La soupe aux poulets, 1963; Sans Mobile Apparent, 1971; Claude Chabrol’s Blood Relatives, 1978), Czechoslovakia (87. Revír, 1970; Panenka, 1980) and elsewhere.

   As McBain, Salvatore Albert Lombino (aka Evan Hunter) was the acknowledged master of the police procedural, the series comprising 55 books over half a century, and possibly inspiring Hill Street Blues. Its innovations included a “conglomerate hero in a mythical city…[that] was like New York but not quite New York,” with analogs for each borough; he had planned that “one cop can step into the spotlight in one novel, another in the next novel, cops can get killed and disappear from the series, other cops can come in, all of them visible to varying extents in each of the books…” The novel was faithfully adapted by McBain himself as “King’s Ransom” (2/19/62), an episode of the 87th Precinct show.

   It opens in the home of factory owner Douglas King as he confronts an attempted coup by investor Frank Blake, sales head George Benjamin, and fashion co-ordinator Rudy Stone, members of the board of directors of Granger Shoe Company who seek his voting stock to override the “Old Man” and abandon quality shoes for the more profitable low-priced field. Unknown to them, King plans to send assistant Pete Cameron up to Boston with a check for $750,000 so that his lawyer, Oscar Hanley, can sew up sufficient stock to effect a counter-coup. King gets a call demanding $500,000 for son Bobby, snatched while playing in the back woods with Jeff, son of widowed chauffeur Charles Reynolds.

   Then, Bobby bursts in, and it quickly becomes clear that Sy Barnard and Eddie Folsom — whose wife, Kathy, was waiting at a rented farmhouse, thinking they were pulling a final bank job before the couple can head down to Mexico for a fresh start — have grabbed the wrong victim. Eddie has cobbled together a Rube Goldberg contraption out of equipment from a series of radio-supply thefts and monitors the police frequencies, learning of their error. Phone company man Cassidy sets up a wiretap, yet the next call, to say they want the ransom paid regardless, is too brief to be traced; needing the money for Hanley, King refuses to pay despite Diane’s threat to leave, his son’s pleas, and any adverse publicity.

   Adrian Score, who tells King he knows who the kidnappers are and can get the boy back for a fee, is recognized by Det. Meyer Meyer as a con man and ejected; in the squadroom, Det. Hal Willis and Artie Brown, Sgt. Dave Murchison, and even commander Capt. John Frick have their hands full with well-meaning calls. Kathy warns Eddie that Sy plans to kill Jeff either way, but is caught trying to sneak him out, and after Folsom drives off to phone King with his instructions, the boy leaps to her defense when Sy threatens her with a switchblade, interrupted by Eddie’s return. Doug learns that Pete (whose duplicity was presaged by an extramarital affair with Diane’s friend Liz Bellew) has sided with the rest.

   Det. Steve Carella advises King to tell the kidnappers he has the money, just to buy time, so he departs in his Cadillac with a carton full of newspapers — and Carella on the floor in back. At the King estate, Det. Peter Kronig and Cotton Hawes find a tire track and paint scraping that enable the police lab’s Sam Grossman to identify their car as a stolen gray 1949 Ford, but Sy uses the radio to avoid road blocks. Eddie transmits to the car phone, giving King directions piecemeal to avoid pre-emptive police action, and plans to have him drive past a remote spot where Sy waits to pick up the carton, dropped out of view of any possible pursuit, and make off with it before anybody realizes King no longer has it.

   At a toll booth, Steve hands Patrolman Umberson a note pinned to his badge, alerting him to the situation, and he calls the precinct, but Kathy is determined to extricate herself and Eddie from what she fears may turn into a capital crime, so she shouts both their location and Sy’s into the open mike. As Carella and King surprise Sy in the woods, with Doug battering him into submission despite knife wounds, police raid the farmhouse to find Jeff safe and sound. Repaying Kathy’s kindness, he stubbornly insists he’s been alone since Sy — who corroborates his story to avoid the mark of the squealer, shielding the Folsoms’ presumed Mexican getaway — left; Doug mounts his takeover, and reconciles with Diane.

   High and Low features Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura, seen separately or together in almost every film from the first phase of Kurosawa’s directorial career, up through Red Beard (1965). The co-scenarists were Hideo Oguni, his collaborator on a dozen projects from Ikiru (1952) to Ran; Eijirô Hisaita, who’d worked with him as early as No Regrets for Our Youth (1946); and Ryûzô Kikushima, who produced the film for Toho Co., Ltd., with Tomoyuki Tanaka, the driving force behind the Godzilla and other kaijū eiga (giant monster) films for which the studio is best known. Composer Masaru Satô was another kaijū mainstay, as were Shimura and supporting players Jun Tazaki and Yoshio Tsuchiya.

   Baba (Yûnosuke Itô), sales and operations; Kamiya (Tazaki), marketing; and Ishimaru (Nobuo Nakamura), design, ask Kingo Gondo (Mifune) to join his 13% of the stock with their combined 21% to vote out the Old Man, holding 25%, and replace him as president of National Shoes with Baba. Kurosawa adds a marvelous visualization as Gondo tears their flimsy prototype to pieces with his bare hands, then is threatened that they can vote with the Old Man and throw him out. As right-hand man Kawanishi (Tatsuya Mihashi) shows them out, they offer to make him a director if he helps them, and here we first see Jun (Toshio Egi) and chauffeur Aoki’s (Yutaka Sada) son, Shinichi (Masahiko Shimazu).

   Playing sheriff vs. outlaw, they switch outfits, accounting for the confusion after Kingo tells wife Reiko (Kyôko Kagawa) that Kawanishi will be off to Osaka with a deposit of ¥50 million to bring his holdings to 47%. Chief Inspector Tokura (Tatsuya Nakadai) and his men arrive in a delivery van, aware that with a telescope, the house is visible from the streets below, literalizing the film’s U.S. title. Resetting it from a frigid “Isola” October (weather features prominently in many of the books) to a sweltering Yokohama summer, Kurosawa sharply contrasts Gondo’s air-conditioned hilltop home with the slums, where much of the action occurs, an “inferno” that, per the kidnapper, “feels like 105 degrees.”

   Refusing to pay the ¥30 million, Gondo says the kidnapper seems obsessed: “He wants to humiliate me, see me suffer.” Using the Tohoscope wide-screen image to great effect, Kurosawa tracks in and out of a single three-minute cut to capture, in the same frame, all the drama of Reiko consoling Aoki as he debases himself to beg for help, Jun plaintively asking when Shinichi will return, and the conflicted Gondo telling Kawanishi to postpone Osaka, with the police listening awkwardly in the foreground. The chief sets up a special investigation, placing the whole prefectural police force at Tokura’s disposal with a clear mandate (“Save the child first, then catch the kidnapper”) paralleling the film’s structure.

   After a night of soul-searching, Gondo remains obdurate, unwilling to sacrifice his future and all he’s worked for, and tells Kawanishi to proceed, but when he balks, citing Reiko’s wishes and public opinion, Kingo intuits that he has been sold out. Equally at home as a samurai or an aspiring footwear tycoon, Mifune brings his trademark intensity to the role, grappling with his betrayal and no-win situation. Knowing he is being watched, he says he’ll pay, demanding to see Shinichi, and then — in the first significant departure from the novel — calls the bank for the cash, to be taken aboard the Kodama No. 2 express train in two briefcases, a deliberately conspicuous style that the kidnapper will have to get rid of.

   They contain powders emitting a putrid smell if gotten wet or pink smoke if burned; after the police record as many non-consecutive serial numbers as possible, Gondo is told, via rail phone, to toss the cases out the narrow washroom window between Kozu and Atami, where the boy will be at the foot of the Sakawa River bridge. Tokura has Chief Detective Taguchi (Kenjirô Ishiyama) — nicknamed “Bos’n” due to his work at the harbor — and the others snap still photos and 8mm footage from the train, and Shinichi is duly released by a female accomplice. True to the spirit, if not the letter, of McBain, with more than half the 143-minute running time to go, Kurosawa meticulously details the ensuing manhunt.

   Gondo elicits national acclaim but unsympathetic creditors threaten to seize his collateral. Meanwhile, a farmer who saw the cash picked up leads to skid marks and paint scrapings from a stolen gray ’59 Toyopet Crown, and Shinichi recalls being at a house with a view of the sea and Mt. Fuji, yet he was doped with ether, and the kidnapper wore a mask and dark glasses. The abandoned car is found with large amounts of fish blood and oil, and the distinctive sound of the Enoshima trolley is detected in one of the taped phone calls, narrowing their search; at the nearby Koshigoe fish market, the Bos’n learns of a cape in front of Enoshima whose view matches the one drawn by Shinichi, who leads Aoki there.

   As Taguchi and a colleague, arriving just behind them, chide Aoki for playing detective, Shinichi spots the house, where caretakers “Uncle and Auntie” (the de facto Folsoms) are found dead of heroin overdoses. At a news conference held by his boss (Shimura), taking a leaf from McBain’s The Pusher (1956), Tokura posits that the kidnapper silenced them with unexpectedly pure heroin, apparently after a blackmail attempt, and requests a press blackout to let him believe the addicts may still be alive. Instead, they report on Gondo’s ouster from National Shoes, provoking a boycott, and run a planted story about a ¥1,000 note from the ransom having been spent, complete with a photo of an identical briefcase.

   ¥2.5 million is recovered from the accomplices and returned to Gondo, who refuses to be an “ornament” when Kawanishi claims he’s fought to change the board’s mind; Shinichi draws a picture of the kidnapper that, despite the facial coverings, reveals a handkerchief worn around his wrist. In a striking visual touch, Jun draws their attention to pink smoke in the monochrome image, rising from an incinerator used by hospital personnel, where a possible medical intern brought a cardboard box. Ginjirô Takeuchi (Tsutomu Yamazaki), spotted with a wrist wound, has an apartment in Nishi Ward facing Gondo’s house, next to a suspect pay phone, and had treated the addicts for pulmonary edema and withdrawal.

   Tokura sends him a facsimile (made from a tracing on the pad) of their note demanding more heroin, so Takeuchi, forced to make a buy, is followed to “Dope Alley,” where — menacing in his reflective shades — he picks up a junkie and takes her to a flophouse as a fatal guinea pig. Nailed at the hideout, he’d spent only ¥20,000 on heroin, so Gondo gets back the rest of the ransom…too late to save his house. Condemned, Takeuchi insists on speaking with Gondo, now making shoes again for a small company, and says, “From my tiny room, your house looked like heaven,” hatred and resentment giving him a reason for living; he summoned Kingo in a last show of defiance, but his arrogance turns to hysteria.

   No mere acorn, King’s Ransom gave Kurosawa the solid foundation for a more nuanced moral exploration and one that, for Gondo at least, has the opposite outcome. Reducing the accomplices to ciphers — glimpsed only in long shot, filmed from the train, or via the legs of their corpses — enables him to focus completely on Gondo’s relationship with the kidnapper, whose impersonal motive in the book was purely profit-driven, and on a more elaborate investigation that is nonetheless wholly in the McBain style. The Japanese title is also made explicit, particularly in the almost Dantean horrors of “Dope Alley,” whose hopeless denizens, grasping at any passerby, anticipate Night of the Living Dead (1968).

   

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:

   

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.

   Pretty much everything about Anthony Mann’s Railroaded! is hard-boiled: the dialogue, the atmosphere, and the attitude. Especially the dialogue, which cracks with an unpolished cynical toughness. Such is the case for the first main character we meet: hairstylist Clara Calhoun (Jane Randolph), a salon proprietor who, along with Marie Weston (Peggie Converse) is running numbers in the backroom.

   The mood is cynical to begin with, but immediately turns violent when two masked gunmen enter the shop, take the loot, and kill a policeman who rushes to the scene. But before they get away, the cop gets off a shot and hits Cowie Kowalski, the junior partner in the holdup. The ringleader, on the other hand, strategically drops a scarf with initials on the floor, hoping to frame a local boy for the whole affair.

   That’s where Pittsburgh detective Mickey Ferguson (Hugh Beaumont) comes into the picture. He recognizes the initials on the Navy scarf as those of his former childhood neighbor, one Steve Ryan. Pretty soon, Ferguson arrests Ryan, but not without really perturbing Steve’s sister, the intrepid Rosie Ryan (Sheila Ryan). Most of the film involves an interplay between Mickey and Rosie as each seeks to investigate the holdup.

   While Ferguson plays it by the book, Rosie takes a different tack. She gets close to Duke Martin (John Ireland), a local thug who, as it turns out, is the very one who tossed her brother’s scarf on the floor at the hair salon.

   Now, if the plot seems a little complex for a film with such a short running time (72 minutes), let me assure you: there’s also a few other subplots to keep you busy, including the fact that Clara was also working for an organized crime racket and that she was in on the holdup with Duke.

   However, as much as Railroaded! is very much a plot-driven movie, it’s also a character study and an all-enveloping atmospheric noir buttressed by both Mann’s direction and John C. Higgins’s screenplay. One might think a movie with the title Railroaded! would focus on the existential dread of a falsely accused character, such as Steve Ryan. But that is not the case here. For the most compelling – by far – character in this gritty crime drama is not the unforgettable Steve Ryan, but the brutal, violent Duke Martin.

   Portrayed by John Ireland, who had not yet won his Oscar, Duke is a man without a conscience. He puts himself and himself alone first, the rest of the world be damned. That means selling out his co-conspirator, killing off Marie and dumping her body in the river, or shooting his boss in cold blood. The world he inhabits is a cold, dark, and violent one and he fits into it like a hand in a glove. The only true pleasure he seems to obtain is when he is acting out violently.

   Railroaded!, as I mentioned, is also an atmospheric noir, one that can be appreciated irrespective of the plot. There are a few singular moments that stand out, such as a long down and dirty fight between Clara and Susie. Never do I recall seeing something quite like this in any other movie from the 1940s or 1950s. It’s a truly unique noir moment, akin to the coffee-in-the-face scene in The Big Heat (1953).

   I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention the nightclub scenes in the movie. Duke’s boss owns a seemingly respectable nightspot called The Bombay Club. It seems like a lot of viewers particularly appreciated the final shootout at the club, but for me, it’s the nominally slower moments, such as the barbed conversations in the backroom that give the movie its enduring power to captivate an audience.

   

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:

   

TRANCE.  20th Century Fox, 2013. James McAvoy, Rosario Dawson, Vincent Cassel.  Screenplay by John Hodge, Joe Ahearne (his story). Directed by Danny Boyle. Currently streaming on HBO Max.

   This twisty after the caper heist film somehow went under my radar when it came out in 2013, and that’s a shame because it has an excellent lead cast and a story with more twists than a bag full of Twizzlers.

   Simon (James McAvoy) is a curator at an auction house, and we discover fairly early in the narrative, the inside man in a heist masterminded by Franck (Vincent Cassel), thanks to his crippling gambling debts. During the heist Simon inexplicably attacks Franck and is struck by him knocking him unconscious.

   When Franck gets away with the McGuffin, Goya’s “The Ascension,” which just brought $26 million at auction, he finds the painting missing, and when he finally catches up with Simon after he gets out of the hospital, he claims amnesia from the head injury.

   Franck and his partners are less than happy.

   Suggested by a series of big art heists of the general era, this one goes in for a series of revelations related to Simon’s memory while stringing the viewer along with not only unreliable narrators, but unreliable narration and storytelling.

   No one is telling the truth in this movie, and yet again and again they are telling you exactly what you need to know to figure this out. In that sense Agatha Christie could not have laid out a better set of clues and red herrings, some of which I warn you are not the red herrings they seem.

   After torture fails, Franck and his team decide to try psychology and see if Simon’s traumatic memory loss can be retrieved by hypnosis. The therapist Simon chooses from a list of top therapists given him by Franck is Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson) whose successful practice consists of mostly phobics, people wanting to lose weight, and chronic smokers.

   She trips almost immediately to the phony identity they have set up for Simon, and by the second visit has spotted he is wired so they can listen. At that point she meets with Franck and agrees to help recover Simon’s memory if she is in on the profit.

   Now as she plays a dangerous game between the infatuated and traumatized Simon and the attractive and suspicious Franck and the gang he may not be fully able to control, she must breakdown one roadblock Simon has put up after another, as the changing story of what happened to him between the head injury and losing the painting is dragged out, but not always as true as it might seem.

   Simon’s arc changes under McAvoy’s strong performance as we get subtle glimpses that neither things nor Simon are exactly what we think.

   I will warn, or tease, you there is significant full frontal nudity in this one, and also point out it is not at the least exploitative, but a vital clue and plot point that, like dozens like it planted and dropped along the way, absolutely pays off toward the end, as one revelation after another comes at the viewer without ever becoming parodic.

   Stylish, original, not derivative despite the Hitchcockian touches, with forays into Cornell Woolrich country as well as Patricia Highsmith in a world inhabited by near sociopaths, Trance keeps you on the edge of your seat and the edge of your conscience as you try to outguess, and largely fail despite some easy ones planted to let you think you are ahead of the game/ It is not only the screenwriters and director, but the characters who switch power roles from one scene to the next.

   You won’t watch this one casually while doing something else. If you want to keep up you will have to pay attention and even then you may have to go back to see if they really did play fair surprisingly often.

   In that sense it is at much a detective story as suspense, crime, or a caper, but one where you never quite trust the detective and shouldn’t.

   Granted there are a few of the inevitable plot holes where coincidence plays too large a role, particularly one they do make a halfhearted effort to pretend they covered, but generally from the opening to the final shot you have a perfectly good shot at outwitting this film, though I’m willing to wager you won’t, at least not as completely as you think you have.

   Danny Boyle, the golden boy of British film had some fun doing this far less consequential film but he knocks it out of the park with sharp performances, an ever twisting plot, and handsome visuals, none of which you dare to ignore.

   What is real and what has been planted, the nature of memory and the way it can be manipulated and lies to us, all those serious questions are posed, but in terms of one of the better outright old fashioned psychological thrillers of recent years.

   

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:

   

RUST CREEK. Premiered at the 2018 Bentonville Film Festival and was released theatrically on January 4, 2019. Hermione Corfield as Sawyer Scott, Jay Paulson as Lowell Pritchert, Sean O’Bryan as Sheriff O’Doyle, Micah Hauptman as Hollister. Script by Julie Lipson, based on an original story by Stu Pollard. Directed by Jen McGowan. Currently streaming on Netflix.

   A week or so ago, I reviewed Borrego, a female-centered indie thriller in which a young protagonist must evade nefarious drug dealers. And as I mentioned in the review, the whole affair – despite the stellar cinematography – seemed forced, artificial. That’s not the case in Rust Creek, another survivor thriller movie that has a similar premise, but which delivers vastly more satisfying results.

   Sawyer Scott (an exceptionally well cast Hermione Corfield) is a senior at Centre College in Kentucky. Rather than returning home to her family during Thanksgiving break, she decides to embark on a solo road trip to Washington D.C. for a job interview. Big mistake. What starts off as a promising venture turns into a nightmare when she stumbles upon two backwoods brothers up to no good. Although they are not nearly as grotesque as the villains from Deliverance (1972), Hollister (Micah Hauptman) and Buck (Daniel R. Hill) are what you might expect. Crass, brutal, and not all that bright.

   But evading these two brothers isn’t the least of Sawyer’s difficulties; she also must navigate her survival in the face of the harsh Appalachian outdoors, a leg injury, and a meth cook by the name of Lowell Pritchert (Jay Paulson) who happens to be the outlaw brothers’ cousin. And if that’s not enough, there’s also a corrupt local sheriff (Sean O’Bryan) who, as it turns out, is in business with the brothers, hoping to make significant inroads into the methamphetamine trade.

   Jen McGowan directs the proceedings with skill and a delicate understatement, never really forcing her cast to present artificial emotions or to engage in the maudlin-type moments that marred Borrego.

   Rather, she generally relies on her actors to convey complex emotions through physical mannerisms and their actions rather than through overly emotive dialogues. There is one exception to this – a monologue by Lowell (Paulson) that I didn’t find convincing given his socioeconomic and class status – but otherwise, the movie delivers the goods without forcing a message upon the audience.

   Rust Creek apparently didn’t have much of a theatrical release, having been released to video-on-demand after premiering at a film festival. But it did quite well on Netflix, which is where I happened upon it. I don’t think that I will ever particularly seek out the film for a second viewing, but I enjoyed it for what it was. Solid, steady film-making that doesn’t condescend to the audience and which provides good escapist entertainment. Which is all too much a rarity these days.

   

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:

   

THE DEVIL STRIKES AT NIGHT. West Germany, 1957. Zenith International Films, US. 1959. Originally released as Nacht, wenn der Teufel kam. Claus Holm, Mario Adorf, Hans Messemer, Peter Carsten, Carl Lange, Werner Peters, Annemarie Düringer, Monika John. Screenplay by Werner Jörg, from an article by Will Berthold. Directed by Robert Siodmak.

   This fine West German film noir, by noir master Robert Siodmak (Phantom Lady) is based on a true story that bears an uncanny resemblance to a similar incident in the Soviet Union, a powerful condemnation and revealing expose of the twisted mindset of totalitarian governments regardless of their political leanings.

   The time is the summer of 1944 with the West and the Russians both pushing forward and Germany under constant bombardment from Allied planes. Wounded hero Kommissar Axel Kersten (Claus Holm) has returned to Berlin from the Russian front sick of war and heroics with shrapnel in his leg and still less than enamored of his Nazi superiors, which is why he is less than happy when he is assigned a murder in Hamburg of a waitress, one Lucy Hansen (Monika John) by minor Nazi functionary Willi Keun (Werner Peters).

   It seems all rather cut and dried. Keun frequently pestered and sexually harassed the woman, is known for being free with his hands with women, and her body was found in the doorway of his flat during an air raid with her neck broken. There is everything but an eyewitness to the murder.

   But Kersten sees inconsistencies and we the viewer know Keun is innocent, however little we sympathize with him. The film is very careful not to allow the viewer to identify with Keun. He’s a small bureaucratic monster, just not a murderer. Saving him is an act of conscience and justice, not any virtue he possesses.

   For Kersten the case doesn’t hold up either, not the least problem being the fact the soft Keun could not possibly have had the strength to strangle a healthy grown woman and shatter her hyoid bone with one hand. It just isn’t possible.

   Further when he starts looking, he finds a series of murders in Hamburg dating back to before the war that suggests a serial killer, a madman, is stalking the women of the city.

   Complicating things for Kersten is a developing romance with Helga Hornung (Annemarie Düringer) who has secrets of her own and pressure in from charming cynical SS Grupenfüher Rossdorf (Hans Messemer) who informs him in no uncertain terms that in Adolf Hitler’s Germany there is no such thing as a mentally degenerate serial killer and Willi Keun’s trial and certain conviction will be expedited.

   There are a few spoilers here, but this is not a detective story or a suspense film really. It has element of those, but they aren’t the purpose here.

   Kersten continues to push though and soon enough he discovers simple minded Bruno Lüdke (Mario Adorf) who has a reputation for hanging around women, but even when he has a confession from the real killer he may not be able to save Willi Keun from a corrupt bureaucracy and the State’s unwillingness to face reality while his actions expose him and Helga to increasing danger.

   In the Nazi Germany of 1944 Bruno Lüdke simply cannot exist no matter how many women he murdered.

   Ironic and intelligent, West Germany submitted this as their 1958 entry in the Best Foreign Film category at the Academy Awards. With a cast more familiar to American audiences than most (Messeemer, Carsten, and Peters in particular), a lean script, and Robert Siodmak at the helm having returned to his homeland after work in Hollywood dried up, The Devil Strikes at Night is a taut and cynical film that covers much of the same ground as much bigger productions like Night of the Generals, based on the bestselling Hans Helmut Kirst novel. The sheer banality of evil has seldom been as well presented.

   Holm, Messemer, Adorf, and Peters are particularly effective with Holm’s decent man caught in a moral predicament easy to identify with. The almost Orwellian lengths a society is willing to go to to deny the truth, even at the cost of an innocent life and one of their own gives added weight to the film.

   It would have been simple to make Willi Keun a sympathetic character and identify the viewer with him and Kersten’s attempt to save him, but this film chooses a more complex path with Keun a pathetic self-serving cog in the very machine that destroys him, and Kersten’s crusade to save him almost quixotic considering he represents everything Kersten loathes.

   The grim reality of a few decent people in a society where madness is the norm trying to survive when national suicide is seen as heroic and inevitable makes this a powerful film and still effective.

   It, and quite a few German Krimi films are currently available on YouTube with English subtitles, and while most of them are more along the lines of the somewhat campy Edgar Wallace films there are some gems among them worth looking into.

   

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