Crime Films

TAKE AIM AT THE POLICE VAN. Nikkatsu, Japa, 1960. Original title: Sono gosôsha wo nerae: ‘Jûsangô taihisen’ yori. Michitaro Mizushima, Mari Shiraki, Misako Watanabe, Shinsuke Ashida, Shôichi Ozawa. Director: Seijun Suzuki.

   Although not a film noir, this Japanese crime film from 1960 has a lot going for it for fans of the genre from a purely visual point of view. Filmed in sharp, clear black and white, Take Aim at the Police Van avoids the big glittering neon-lit cities seen so often in movie staking place in Japan, and concentrates instead on the underbellies of small towns and in darkened streets and long stretches of mostly isolated highway (not always).

   The opening scene tells you right away where the title in English came from. A prison bus is shot at by a sniper on a hillside, killing not the guards, but two of the three convicts being transported inside. One of the guards, Daijirô Tamon (played by Michitaro Mizushima) is deemed responsible and is given a six months’ suspension.

   Rather than sit back and take a vacation, Tamon decides to track down the killer(s) and find out what kind of scheme is behind the murders, thus leading him into a complex tale of a prostitution ring, dead ends, false trails, fake deaths, and narrowly escaping death in a runaway gasoline tanker leaking a trail of flames behind it as it thunders down a highway.

   Even more importantly, every clue he follows seems to lead him back to a beautiful but totally enigmatic woman, Yuko Hamashima (Misako Watanabe), whose father apparently runs a brothel, but in whose absence illness Yuko is trying to keep the business going, but with competition being what it is, without as much success as she’d prefer.

   I am hazy on the details. There are a lot twists and turns in the tale that is told in this movie, with very abrupt changes of scenes, not only in time but in location. Another viewing may help, and I think I will, if only to savor the entire viewing experience again, the story itself be damned.


RED LIGHT. United Artists, 1949. George Raft, Virginia Mayo, Gene Lockhart, Raymond Burr, Henry (Harry) Morgan, Barton MacLane, Ken Murray, William Frawley. Directed by Roy Del Ruth.

   Watching old movies like this one, you begin to wonder all sorts of strange things, such as how some actors and actresses became well-known stars, and others didn’t. Take George Raft, for example. Take Virginia Mayo, for another , Neither one could act their way out of a dark room, not if you take this movie as a prime example of their work (and quite possibly you shouldn’t).

   Admittedly it’s a low budget crime drama, but that doesn’t stop all of the lower ranked players in the list of credits from showing them how it should be done, if they were paying attention. As the owner of a trucking company whose brother is killed in a bit of gangland revenge, George Raft is as dapper a dresser as ever, but he’s stiff as a board in any small matters such as facial expressions or simply walking across a room.

   As for Virginia Mayo, she had the looks and figure to be a star, I suppose, but her delivery here is as wooden as the board that Raft is as stiff as. The real star of this movie is Raymond Burr. In fact this was shown on TNT as part of a afternoon-long Salute to Raymond Burr, which shows that the people at TNT know what they are doing.

   Burr is the hoodlum who’s been sent up by Raft, and he’ s the one who hires Harry Morgan to wipe out Raft’s brother. Burr was a little overweight at this time of his career, but his dark, glowering eyes made him a perfect villain in any number of films of this same caliber. Morgan, before he began to make a name for himself in comedy roles, was also perfect as a series of dim-witted killers or former boxers who’d taken one too many on the chin.

   Whenever Burr is on screen, the story takes on life. Whenever he’s not, the temptation is to find the fast-forward button. Not a ”noir” film, except on occasion, but in reality an inspirational type of movie, a testament to the practice of leaving Gideon Bibles in every hotel room in the country. (*)

(*) And speaking of Gideon Bibles, it reminds me that the shooting (and a good deal of the subsequent investigation) takes place in the Carlton Hotel, San Francisco. Trivia question: what long-running radio/TV series was there that began almost every episode in the same hotel?

– Reprinted from Mystery*File #32, July 1991, in slightly revised form.




CASH ON DEMAND. 1961. Peter Cushing, André Morell, Richard Vernon, Norman Bird, Kevin Stoney. Director: Quentin Lawrence.

   With Frankenstein and Dracula as their figureheads, it is easy to forget just how versatile Hammer Film Studios actually were, with comedies, war films and even a couple of Robin Hood movies amongst their filmography. One of their early specialities was the crime thriller, which they focused on particularly in the 1950s, with a trilogy of Dick Barton films, the last Saint and a Sexton Blake film (which I really, really must find somehow) and it is crime they returned to here.

   This low-budget black-and-white effort from director Quentin Lawrence stars a bespectacled Peter Cushing as the prim and pernickety bank manager Harry Fordyce, who is visited at work by an urbane, avuncular and apparently experienced insurance investigator named Colonel Gore-Hepburn (André Morell). It seems to be a routine check on the bank’s security, but things turn sour when the Colonel reveals himself to be a bank robber holding Fordyce’s family hostage at home. Fordyce is forced to become the Colonel’s accomplice and help remove £90,000 from the bank’s vault.

   Played out in real-time, on just three sets, the film snares the viewer’s interest and won’t let it go. The irony of a man as authoritative and stiffly regimental as Fordyce being plunged into a situation in which – for once – he has no control neatly demonstrates just how much power he has so instantly lost. In Gore-Hepburn, he is confronted with a ruthlessness just as rigid and impersonal as his own and it is almost as if this Colonel is an even darker version of himself. It is, effectively, the Ghost of Christmas Future who speaks to Fordyce suavely from across his desk and, like Scrooge, he becomes a changed man because of it.

   The film’s yuletide setting emphasises this moral – a time of goodwill, spiritual rebirth and the importance of family and friends – but, for me, it could have been clearer just why Fordyce goes on to be so grateful to his staff. They help in a minor way but I think they could have done more if the charity of others is what the filmmakers were pointing towards.

   However, even if this ending is a little inarticulate, the scenes before it more than compensate. The robbery scenes, in particular, are thrilling and there is reliable support from Richard Vernon and an underused, but always welcome, Norman Bird.

   Cushing and Morell had, of course, played Holmes and Watson in Hammer’s 1959 hit The Hound of the Baskervilles and much enjoyment comes from watching these two fine actors spar again in what is essentially a two-hander. Morell must have been at particular ease as he had played his character in the television version broadcast several months earlier (under the somewhat anaemic title The Gold Inside).

   It seems strange today, but many TV series of the time – such as several stories from The Francis Durbridge Serial – would see a film studio recast and reshoot a television production on a slightly bigger budget. Sometimes, this meant seeing the (condensed) material in colour or, at least, on a much bigger screen than the small one in the corner at home. Cushing himself would participate in such a feature when he took on the role of The Doctor (or, more properly, ‘Dr Who’) in the two Dalek films.

   Biographer David Miller wrote in Peter Cushing: A Life in Film that the actor seemed more theatrical and mannered here than usual. I would prefer to think of the performance as intense, which is no surprise as Cushing always gave his all to a role, without any indication of irony. Perhaps he considered it a novelty to play a less than heroic character. Elsewhere, in The British ‘B’ Film, writers Steve Chibnall and Brian McFarlane list Cash on Demand as one of the best examples of its kind, calling it, “both tensely compelling and humanely rewarding.”

   Happily, it’s on YouTube, so Cash on Demand won’t be demanding any cash from us, though it would certainly be worth it.

Rating: ***



THE SHIP THAT DIED OF SHAME. General Film Distributors, UK, 1955. Continental Distributing, US, 1956, as PT Raiders. Richard Attenborough, George Baker, Bill Owen, Roland Culver, Bernard Lee, Virginia McKenna. Screenplay by John Whiting, Michael Relph & Basil Dearden, based on a story by Nicholas Monsarrat. Directed by Basil Dearden.

   This is an offbeat British noir with a touch of the supernatural, though underplayed and understated, that is unmistakable. George Hoskins (Richard Attenborough) and Bill Randall (George Baker Wexford, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service himself and as George Lazenby’s voice when he is posing as a member of the Royal College of Arms) and Birdie Dick (Bill Owen Compo of The Last of the Summer Wine) serve together on a Royal Navy Motor Gun Boat (a P.T. Boat in American jargon) raiding the French coast and attacking German installations at night and rescuing downed pilots in the Channel.

   When Bill’s wife (Virginia McKenna) is killed in the cottage where they live in a bombing raid his rather jolly swashbuckling war comes to and end. With the war at an end Bill finds himself at sixes and sevens until he runs into George who has a plan to buy their former boat and indulge in a bit of harmless smuggling.

   Smuggling and the British efforts to avoid excise taxes is a common theme in British history and literature from du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn, Graham Greene’s The Man Within, and J. Meade Falkner’s Moonfleet to more comic takes like Geoffrey Household’s “Brandy for the Parson,” and Compton Mackenzie’s Whiskey Galore, and the theme only grew more common with the wartime shortages and black-market during and after the war where shortages lasted well into the prosperous Fifties.

   George and Bill, with Birdie insisting on coming along, begin rather harmlessly and revive some of the spirit of their wartime adventures. Fooling Customs Inspector Sam Brewster (Bernard Lee, M from the James Bond films) and foiling pirates led by smooth baddie Major Fordyce (Roland Culver) are a throwback to the best days of the war when they struck quickly and silently along the French coast.

   Bill can almost forget the pain of what he lost, almost pretend that he has really escaped from the emptiness of his life.

   But George is greedy and seeks out Major Fordyce who can guarantee them higher pay and bigger risks. Attenborough was always equally adept at playing meek innocents and rather shady characters.

   Those risks come in the form of smuggling a man out of England, a dangerous mission attempted in a heavy fog and with a new element, sudden trouble with their ship, something that first becomes apparent to Birdie when he notes the ship doesn’t like what they are doing.

   And little wonder, because the man that Fordyce has them smuggling is a wanted child murderer.

   They barely get away and their passenger ends up overboard, but their luck has run out. Bill is ready to chuck it all and turn himself in when Fordyce and George, hoping to get away, murder Sam Brewster who is onto them and kidnap he and Birdie to get them safely to Portugal.

   But no one has counted on the weather or the whims of their once gallant ship.

   That faint, and it is very faint, hint that the ship is somehow aware of what it is being used for and ashamed is the main oddity in the story which otherwise would be a tough but standard British noir crime outing of the period with a better than average cast.

   Based on a story later expanded by Nicholas Monsarrat (The Cruel Sea, The Nylon Pirates, White Rajah) who was a bestselling novelist who wrote primarily of the sea and whose feel for that life was notable, the supernatural aspect is never overplayed. It works at the fringes and builds only at the big climax.

   The Ship That Died of Shame isn’t seen all that often, but it is worth catching. Currently it, and quite a few excellent films from the Thirties through the Sixties are available on Classic Reels a low price streaming service that adds one or two new films a day.

   In any case this is worth seeing.



DOROTHY B. HUGHES – Ride the Pink Horse. Duell, Sloan & Pearce, hardcover, 1946. Dell #210, mapback edition, date? [1948. See comments.] Reprinted many times since.

RIDE THE PINK HORSE. Universal, 1947. Robert Montgomery, Wanda Hendrix, Andrea King, Thomas Gomez, Fred Clark, Art Smith, Martin Garralaga and John Doucette. Screenplay by Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer, based on the novel by Dorothy B. Hughes. Directed by Robert Montgomery. Available on DVD but not found on any streaming platform at the present time.

   I wish I’d read the book first. Having seen the movie and its made-for-TV remake (The Hanged Man, 1964, directed by Don Siegel), I wasn’t fully attuned to what Dorothy B Hughes was doing until the last pages.

   What she was doing was taking a tough gangster tale and turning it into a metaphysical hike into Hell. When the story opens, a tough Chicago hood called Sailor arrives in a small New Mexico town to collect a debt from a senator (called Sen) who doesn’t want to pay. Since the debt in question is Sailor’s fee for killing Sen’s wife, the matter has to be settled with some delicacy, but Sailor is tough, smart, and up to the job.

   Or so he thinks. But he’s walking into a trap set for him not by Sen, but by a cruel universe. The small town is the scene of a local festival that has filled every hotel and spare bed in town, so Sailor has to hustle just for the necessities. The mix of frolic, need, superstition, duplicity, and spirituality that mark the pageant have an odd effect on his psyche, awakening old memories and vague fears, hemming him in with uncaring crowds who speak a foreign language — but it’s Sailor who is the real foreigner in an alien landscape.

   Hughes fills the story with memorable characters: a thoughtful cop, the weaselly senator, a mysterious girl, an earthy laborer, bartenders, clerks, and a lovely innocent, seen only at a distance until a final corrosive moment when…. But I’m telling too much.

   Suffice it to say that Hughes evokes a struggle for Sailor’s soul, with self-appointed guardian angels rolling the dice against the darker forces (the name Sen seems meaningful here) that keep pulling him into nightmare. She also keeps us firmly caged in Sailor’s perceptions, as she did with the killer of In a Lonely Place, making this is a tale to compare with the most harrowing pulp nightmares of Jim Thompson and David Goodis.

   Robert Montgomery softened the story out of necessity – the murdered wife ploy becomes a bit of extortion attempted by a rubbed-out friend of Sailor’s (here named Lucky Gagin) and the Senatoris now a war profiteer, superbly limned by Fred Clark, one of the finest and most unsung character actors of his time.

   Likewise, Thomas Gomez does quite well as the sweaty and philosophical Mexican carousel impresario, Art Smith makes a surprisingly gentle G-Man, Wanda Hendrix combines a mysterious mien with a touching teenage crush, and Andrea King provides chills as one of the coldest femmes fatales in all of noir.

   Robert Montgomery directs smoothly and unobtrusively, as if apologizing for his work on Lady in the Lake (1946). Looking back on it, Lake was a mistake that someone had to make sooner or later, but that’s a discussion for another day. The only problem with Montgomery in Ride the Pink Horse is that he lacks the type-cast toughness that Bogart, Cagney, or Dick Powell could have brought to the role. He’s obviously acting here, acting very well, but still not living the part.

   I saw the TV remake sometime in my callow youth, and I wish I could have watched it again for this piece, but it seems to have sunk into the oblivion that swallowed all too many films of its ilk. Too bad, for I remember it fondly.


PARKER. 2003. Jason Statham, Jennifer Lopez, Michael Chiklis, Patti LuPone, Emma Booth, Nick Nolte. Based on the book Flashfire, written by Donald Westlake under the pen name Richard Stark. Director: Taylor Hackford. Currently streaming on Netflix.

   I imagine most of you reading this review already know who Parker is, and if so, you probably knew about this movie long before I did, and if so you probably watched it long before I did. But just as a basis to begin with, Parker is the toughest (anti)hero you ever don’t want to meet, and if you do, you don’t want to mess around with him. He appeared in a series of 24 books by Donald E. Westlake, and while a couple of movies were made from the books, this is the first one in which he’s called Parker.

   I wouldn’t want to say that it’s the best of the three, because Point Blank, the one with Lee Marvin, has become what some critics call a cult classic. But while I can see why they might want to say that, I have to tell you that I think this is the one that captures the essence of what makes Parker Parker the best.

   Which is this. Basically who he is a thief, and he’s good at what he does. What you do not want to do is cross him, though, in any shape or form:

   In the opening of this one, Parker is disguised as a priest while the rest of his crew are made up as clowns. The robbery of the Ohio State Fair box office goes off like clockwork, but when the rest of gang tells Parker that they need his cut to finance their next theft, he does not take it kindly, to say the least. He objects, they leave him for dead, but naturally he is not, which is a mistake by the gang they soon wish they hadn’t made.

   The trail leads to Palm Beach, which is where Jennifer Lopez comes in. She’s a real estate agent, divorced, pushing 40 and with no idea where life is leading her. He needs her to show him around, but it doesn’t take her long to know what is up, and she wants in. In the meantime, there is enough action to keep anyone who loves this kind of movie as well satisfied as any movie with this kind of firepower in it could ever do.

   The ending is a little lame, with loose ends flying everywhere, but that’s only in comparison to the rest of the film, and if you were to have asked me afterward if they really needed Jennifer Lopez in it, I would have to agree and say maybe not. I suppose that this was meant to be the first of a franchise, but for what ever reason, it didn’t happen, and Jason Statham went on to other, if not better, things. To me, though, he made a perfect Parker, and I would have liked to have seen more.




DAVID GOODIS – Down There. Gold Medal #623, paperback original, January 1956. Black Lizard, paperback, 1987. Included in Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1950s, hardcover, Library of America, 1997.

SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER. France, 1960, released as Tirez sur le pianiste. Astor Pictures Corporation, US, 1962. Charles Aznavour, Marie Dubois, Nicole Berger, Michèle Mercier. Based on the novel Down There by David Goodis. Director: François Truffaut.

   In substance, Down There is pretty typical Gold Medal stuff, what with fistfights, chases, mobsters, broads, and other rugged manly stuff — the story is something about a threadbare piano player (Eddie in the book, Charlie in the film) at a seedy bar getting involved with gangs and a waitress — but flavored here with the boozy poetry unique to David Goodis. Goodis could hear the circular logic of a drunk and find in it the awesome redundancy of a Beethoven composition. His characters keep trying to grapple with the meaning of it all, keep losing, keep grappling again….

   Oftentimes they succeed in resolving whatever the plot is – they catch the killer, foil the criminal, rescue the damsel — only to lose some more Important objective, stuck in whatever personal swamp they started out the book in. So the final lesson of Down There is not just that You Can Go Home Again… your destiny was to never really leave,

   Shoot the Piano Player takes the fatalism of the novel and infuses it with director Francois Truffaut’s soft heart and Gallic wit. The circular story is still there, faithfully filmed from the novel down to small detail, but it seems somehow more human, as if it isn’t fate so much as the characters themselves that leads them to their predestined ends.

   Along the way there are plenty of pauses for the bit players to get out and stretch their legs a bit — stock characters in Goodis novels and Truffaut films simply refuse to behave like stock characters — so when Charlie (Charles Aznavour) and Lena (Marie Dubois) are kidnapped by gangsters early on, their captors end up swapping jokes with them. And later on, a thuggish bartender muses aloud about his bad luck with women as he’s trying to choke Charlie to death.

   The point, if there is one (it’s never quite safe to go looking for a moral lesson in Truffaut films or Goodis novels), may be that no one is really ordinary: not In pulp novels, B-movies or what we call Real Life; skid-row bums might be heroes, goons can feel tenderness, and a spearcarrier in the back row of Aida may actually be singing an aria, if we listen closely.

— Reprinted from The Hound of Dr. Johnson #42, January 2006.




DASHIELL HAMMETT – The Glass Key. Alfred A. Knopf, hardcover, 1931. First published as a series of four connected novelettes in Black Mask magazine, March through June 1930.

THE GLASS KEY. Paramount, 1935. George Raft, Claire Dodd, Rosalind Keith, Edward Arnold, Guinn “Big Boy” Williams, Ray Milland and Tammany Young. Screenplay by Kathryn Scola, Kibec Glasmon, and Harry Ruskin. Directed by Frank Tuttle.

THE GLASS KEY. Paramount, 1942. Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, Brian Donlevy, Bonita Granville, William Bendix, Joseph Calliea and Donald MacBride. Screenplay by Jonathan Latimer. Directed by Stuart Heisler.

MILLER’S CROSSING. Fox, 1990. Albert Finney, Gabriel Byrne, Marcia Gay Harden, John Turturro, Jon Polito, J.E. Freeman, Steve Buscemi, Sam Raimi and Frances McDormand. Written & directed by Joel & Ethan Coen.

   “Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse; and with the means at hand, not hand-wrought dueling pistols, curare and tropical fish.”

   In its short arc, Dashiell Hammett’s fiction went from mysteries to mystery novels, and he seems (to me anyway) to have been on the brink of an actual novel-novel when he went to Hollywood and Hellman and burned himself out. Whatever the case, THE GLASS KEY is balanced nicely between the Mysteries (RED HARVEST, THE DAIN CURSE, THE MALTESE FALCON) and the near-novel that was THE THIN MAN.

   Set in some patently corrupt and nameless city, this is RED HARVEST writ for grown-ups, with gambler Ned Beaumont (Described as slim, mustached, well-dressed, hard-drinking — Hammett day-dreaming in the 3rd person) trying to protect the interests of his buddy, political boss Paul Madvig, and shield him from his own disastrous infatuation with a senator’s daughter, ambitious rivals, and from from taking the rap for a murder he may –or maybe not — have committed.

   Hammett is just as passionate a writer as Woolrich, but he holds his feelings close to the vest, like a card-player with an iffy hand. The strength of Beaumont’s personal honor, and his love for a friend, comes out in action, like the understated effort he takes to collect a gambling debt, and most memorably in the prolonged beating he endures at the hands of sadistic henchman Jeff, to protect Madvig.

   It’s a lengthy scene that becomes the emotional center of the book and lends a sense of uneasy tension to all the subsequent scenes where Jeff appears. Hammett sets up his characters nicely, then plays off our expectations like a real pro, and this finds him at the top of his game or pretty close to it.

   Paramount filmed it twice, first in 1935, then again in ’42. I really want to prefer the earlier version; it has a rough-and-ready pace, some expressive photography, and George Raft is just as inexpressive as Alan Ladd, with a veneer of slickness that suits the character well. There’s a particularly fine moment where he watches a brutal murder without a flicker of emotion. Director Frank Tuttle keeps the camera on Raft, his face lit by a wildly swinging overhead light that slows as a life slowly ebbs away. But the later version boasts a screenplay adaptation superior in most respects, and overall better casting.

   Foremost is Joseph Calliea as Nick Varno (Shad O’Rory in the book and the ’35 film) the gangster angling to supplant Brian Donlevy’s political boss. Calliea projects an icy authority that completely outclasses tepid Robert Gleckler in the earlier film. When Calliea snarls “You talk too much with your mouth, Jeff,” to William Bendix, you feel it in your bones.

   Bendix plays Jeff, the sadistic, sub-normal goon who delights in beating up Alan Ladd, and he conveys all the coiled-spring tension of the character in the book—much better so than Guinn Williams in the ’36 version, who seems just too downright neighborly for the job.

   As for Ladd and Lake, they make the unlikely attraction between the gambler and the society dame believable by dint of type-casting, if nothing else.

   There’s a phrase in Hammett’s book, “little Miss Jesus,” that reappears in the movie MILLER’S CROSSING, but that’s not the only similarity in a film that features Gabriel Byrne as an unlucky gambler and hanger-on to political boss Albert Finney, who has unwisely antagonized gangster Sol Polito and Polito’s psychotic torpedo J.E. Freeman, all for the love of a woman who is playing him.

   MILLER’S CROSSING emerges as a loving homage to THE GLASS KEY, with all the beatings, gang wars, double-dealings and understated feeling of the book, evoked by apt casting (John Turturro’s scheming chiseler is memorably drawn.) and a real feel for atmosphere and action.

   And as if that weren’t enough, there’s a fleeting glimpse of a fight poster featuring “DROP JOHNSON vs LARS THORWALD.”


CONVICT’S CODE. Monogram Pictures, 1939. Robert Kent, Anne Nagel, Sidney Blackmer, Victor Kilian, Norman Willis, Maude Eburne, Ben Alexander. Director: Lambert Hillyer. Currently available for viewing here on YouTube.

   You’d have to be a real fan of old movies to recognize more than one or two of the names above with resorting to IMDb to look them up, but they were all professional performers with loads of credits. I imagine Ben Alexander’s name stands out the most, and his was only a small part. I recognized him by his voice before I saw who he was. He was very young, only 28 at the time, although he’d been making movies since he was five.

   Robert Kent was a complete unknown, but with 71 credits included on IMDb, obviously I haven’t been paying attention. In Convict’s Code, he plays the convict, obviously the leading role. He plays Dave Tyler, a former football star who’s been in prison for three years, locked up for a robbery he didn’t commit.

   Released on parole, he vows to prove his innocence, but the six eyewitnesses who testified against him seem all to have died or disappeared. This is not surprising, at least to the audience, who all knew this is what was going to happen as soon as he shook the warden’s hand goodbye.

   But here is where some suspension of disbelief comes in. After meeting with is parole officer, who goes through all of the things Dave can and cannot do (mostly cannot), Dave unknowingly goes to work for the very same man (Sidney Blackmer) who framed him. And this same guy has a sister (slim and very pretty Anne Nagel) whom he dotes on, and with whom Dave soon finds himself falling in love.

   There is more, and all of the players play their roles most enthusiastically, making what could have been a very dull affair not that much of a chore to watch. Turning off your mind and not asking questions helps, but sometimes that’s all you don’t mind doing on a cold winter night around midnight.




YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE. United Artists, 1937. Sylvia Sidney, Henry Fonda, Barton MacLane, Jean Dixon, William Gargan, Jerome Cowan, Chic Sale, Margaret Hamilton, Warren Hymer, Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams. Directed by Fritz Lang. Currently streaming on Amazon Prime, Criterion Channel and other platforms.

   An early entry in the “lovers on the run” crime film subgenre, You Only Live Once blends American sentimentalism with German Expressionist fatalism to a largely successful effect. Eschewing the gritty realism of Warner Brothers’ prison films for a more nuanced, psychological portrayal of a man caught up in a Kafkaseque predicament, the movie is too early chronologically to be properly considered a film noir. Nevertheless, it definitely contains numerous thematic elements which would become hallmarks of films noir in the 1940s; first and foremost, a doomed protagonist.

   Here, it is ex-convict Eddie Taylor (Henry Fonda). He is, as far as the audience can tell, an everyman just trying to get by in a cold world. At first glance, Taylor doesn’t have any particular character traits which would distinguish him from many other men. This is on purpose. But as the film progresses, the audience is made aware of one very salient fact; namely, that his first encounter with the legal system stemmed from an incident with frogs.

   But not in the way one might think. As a child, Taylor apparently watched another boy being horribly mistreating a frog. It upset him so much – the cruelty of it all – that he attacked the potential future sociopath. This sent him to on a path no longer of his own making. Shipped off to reform school, Taylor never once was able to get his life on track. All for protecting a helpless creature.

   Taylor explains the frog story to his new wife, the electrifyingly innocent Jo Graham (Sylvia Sidney). As he tells her that frogs cannot stand to live alone, the camera pans to a close up of two frogs living side by side. The symbolism may be a little too on your nose, but it works. Eddie and Jo are made for each other. They can’t survive apart.

   After Eddie is accused of a bank job that leaves six people dead, Jo does everything she can to support her one true love. But it’s too much for even intrepid public defender Stephen Whitney (Barton MacLane) who is, among other things, her boss. The story contains numerous twists and turns, invoking fatalism at nearly every corner. Just as you think things are going to look up for Eddie, everything goes dark again.

   The final fifteen minutes or so of the movie showcases Eddie and Jo reunited for the last time. Lovers on the run, hiding out from the law. But there’s no glamour, no romanticism in their perilous journey through the backroads of a rapidly transforming America. It’s just about surviving day to day. Frogs united together in a cruel, unjust world until the very end.


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