Crime Films

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.




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.




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.



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.


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