Hell’s Island

Yes, I know – there are those who will argue, quite vociferously too, that there’s no such beast as a color noir. I’ve heard these arguments before, seen them made with passion and insight. However, while I fully respect the view I cannot buy into it. OK, ultimately, none of this matters a jot but it’s the kind of stuff we film fans do like to chew the fat over. Anyway, I’m of the opinion that Hell’s Island (1955) ought to be categorized as film noir as it has enough of the core ingredients to qualify.

Somewhat unusually, the opening credits play over what turns out to be the climax of the movie. From there we move to a hospital, where the protagonist has been undergoing surgery for a bullet wound. Still lying on the table as the doctor patches him up, Mike Cormack (John Payne) recounts his tale to the local policeman. Now I might as well make it clear that some may find the whole affair more than a little contrived. There’s no denying this, and I think that you have to embrace this aspect if you plan on enjoying the ride. So, here we are in the operating theater, with the hero chain-smoking (with the doctor’s consent) and narrating the peculiar set of circumstances that brought him to that point in just over a week. He’d been working as a kind of bouncer in a Las Vegas casino when he’s handed a proposition – for $5000 he’s to travel to a Caribbean island and inquire into the whereabouts of a valuable ruby that the owner wants back. Why him? That’s simple: the wife of the last man in possession of the gem is an old flame of Cormack’s and he’s therefore seen as having a ready-made foothold. To me, this and what follows is all characteristic of pulp noir – the impossibly convoluted tangle of relationships overshadowing everything before we even start, a clipped and world-weary voiceover from the lead, a location where the opportunities for corruption seem ideal, a femme fatale (Mary Murphy) who looks and acts like she’s been hoodwinking suckers all her life and, of course, a tough guy lead everyone appears intent on crossing up.

This was the third feature director Karlson and star Payne made together (following on from 99 River Street and Kansas City Confidential) and it has to be said it’s the least of the three. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad movie; if anything, acknowledging that this is a lesser affair is a testament to the high quality of the previous two collaborations. It’s enjoyable and pacy, with moments of toughness to hold the attention. Furthermore, it’s photographed by Lionel Lindon so there’s a polished and stylish look to it all. Yet, as I mentioned above, it’s also unashamedly pulpy, and there’s never any serious attempt to sell the story as anything else. We get the shady, overweight underworld type in a motorized wheelchair (Francis L Sullivan), the femme fatale’s  effete associate (Arnold Moss) , and then there’s the protagonist who’s pursuing the novel career path of lawyer-drunk-bouncer-patsy. When I say that all of these are blended together in a budget-conscious, set bound (mind you, it is an attractive set) Pine-Thomas production, then it ought to give a sense of the kind of movie we have. Basically, it’s a caper with some hard edges, as well as being a good-looking showcase for its stars.

By this stage, John Payne had settled comfortably into these types of roles. He was capable of slugging it out convincingly with the best of them, and was credible whether on the receiving end of a casually brutal beating or booting a musclebound henchman into a pool full of hungry alligators. The scenes where he and Mary Murphy are trading kisses and threats are nicely done, but they too have that artificial, semi-cartoonish quality as though ripped from the cover of a 50s paperback; the whole thing winks at you in a stylish, sexy way but in your heart you know it’s superficial. A lot of the sexiness stems from Mary Murphy, giving an arch performance that’s fun to watch but you never really get the impression that she was stretching herself. And the thing is she was a good actress – having made a strong impression in The Wild One, she enjoyed a fair run in the 1950s. Around the time of this movie she was in two, in my opinion anyway, superior productions, Ray Milland’s fine western A Man Alone and Wyler’s The Desperate Hours alongside Bogart and March. The following year she would go on to play opposite Richard Basehart in Joseph Losey’s underrated and neglected The Intimate Stranger/Finger of Guilt – you can find reviews of that one by Sergio here and by Vienna here.  Moving further down the cast list, a slippery Arnold Moss is good value as expected. Frankly, I like a good heavyweight villain and so I feel it’s a pity Francis L Sullivan (in what I think may have been his last role role before his untimely death) doesn’t get more screen time.

Hell’s Island is one of those films that remains stubbornly difficult to acquire in decent quality. I picked up a German DVD (I believe there are also Spanish and Italian variants on the market but I have no idea how they fare in comparison) which is just barely OK. The movie is offered in a choice of presentations – a 4:3 one that seems to be a letterboxed non-anamorphic image, and a 16:9 one that I guess is blown up from the other?  Basically, it’s watchable but the image is muddy and colors are muted and dull. What’s needed is a full restoration – whether or not that’s likely is anybody’s guess. All in all, Hell’s Island is what I think of as enjoyable pulp noir – there’s as much, or more, caricature as characterization, and you’re never quite convinced that these people exist. Yet the direction and the actors keep you watching and at no time does it commit the cardinal sin of being dull or uninteresting. So, while it might not be essential you should still have a good time with it.

Incidentally, this happens to be the 500th post on this blog. Bearing in mind how long this place has been open for business, some might consider that slacking. Nevertheless, it is a milestone of sorts and worth mentioning in passing if nothing else. So my sincere thanks to all of you who have contributed so much to the shared experience over the years – I couldn’t do it without you. Stay safe and well everybody!

Larceny

Larceny (1948) spins a yarn which revolves around a scam, a con. The con man, the grifter if you like, is one who naturally, and as the name implies, trades on confidence. There is of course his own polished brass exterior, his professional mask, but of greater significance is the confidence he inspires, wins, and ultimately betrays in the mark. It’s a dirty business when all is said and done, the sacrifice of something as pure as trust for something as cheap and mired among our base instincts as greed  is the stuff of disillusionment. A famous parting line spoke of the stuff that dreams are made of, but then again it could be said that it’s only a short step from dreams to disillusionment, and therein lies the essence of film noir.

It opens with a sting almost gone wrong. Two sharp and smooth types, Rick Mason (John Payne) and Silky Randall (Dan Duryea), have been bleeding a wealthy Florida citizen and his similarly well-heeled friends, for a yacht club that will never be. They have amassed in the region of a quarter of a million dollars by the time their victim grows suspicious enough to confront them . And so it’s time to move on, this time to small town California and a grieving and gullible war widow. The goal this time is broadly similar: sell the notion of a fictitious war memorial to a scarred soul, and skip out when as much cash as possible has been obtained. A wholly reprehensible scheme, but one with a fair chance of success in a uniquely receptive social landscape, one still reeling from post-war mourning and confusion and casting around for some grain of hope to latch onto. Yet within the soft soap of Randall and Mason there are other gritty little grains: the uncontrolled passion and wandering eye of Randall’s trashy girlfriend (Shelley Winters), the professional and personal jealousy of two mistrustful rivals, an almost impossibly credulous widow (Joan Caulfield) and, most important of all, something called a conscience.

George Sherman is not a man one would normally associate with film noir. This is not to say he wasn’t suited to the form, the movie here is proof he was more than capable of handling its tropes and motifs with great skill, but his real forte lay elsewhere in terms of genre. Sherman’s westerns, particularly those from the golden era of the 1950s, are almost all (those which I’ve seen anyway) imbued with the spirit of redemption and renewal. It’s his apparently natural affinity for and empathy with these positive attributes which make him such a fascinating director of westerns. When it comes to film noir though, these strengths may, for some anyway, be regarded as a handicap. Personally, I don’t buy that; this is partly due to what I’d like to think of as an open-minded or expansionist approach to the genre. Essentially, I’m not keen on locking myself into absolutist positions since it rarely seems to offer us much as viewers if we start excluding and proscribing certain movies as a result of their failure to adhere to rigid, imposed dogma on what should or shouldn’t be permissible. That’s not to advocate a total free-for-all of course, but a little flexibility never hurts.

Just as the director of Larceny didn’t spend his career confined to one genre, neither did its stars. The personnel at the time may not all have been fans but the beauty of the studio system lay in the diversity of material it allowed (or forced, if you prefer) contracted actors and crew to become exposed to and familiar with. John Payne was a personable presence in musicals and romances, but the post-war years saw him shift the focus of his career radically. Larceny represented his first foray into “tough guy” territory and film noir, alongside westerns, saw him do some of his finest work. He’s in great form here, scamming Caulfield, fencing with Duryea and trading clinches and barbs with a spiky and sexy Shelley Winters. And Winters is possibly as good in her role as I’ve ever seen her, firing off some of the finest one-liners anyone was ever handed in a film noir. Duryea is as compelling as he always was (Silky is a superb name for a character and sums up the actor’s manner perfectly) and he displays a marvelous sense of menace. I remember not being all that impressed with Joan Caulfield’s range in The Unsuspected and I found myself having similar thoughts here – I can see how her character needs to project the kind of purity necessary to push the plot in the direction it ultimately takes, but I felt her innocence was overdone at times. But that’s just my take on it. As for support, it’s worth mentioning some fine contributions from Dan O’Herlihy, Dorothy Hart, Percy Helton and Richard Rober.

I would be utterly delighted were I able to post here that I had managed to track down a sparkling and pristine release of Larceny, one which could be eagerly snapped up by fellow movie fans. Sadly, that is not the case; the movie remains, to the best of my knowledge, unavailable for purchase. I watched it online, viewing a print that was very far from optimum condition. This is most certainly not the ideal way to see anything and I only resorted to this as no other option exists at the moment. At the risk of sounding like a hopelessly scratched vinyl recording, I can only reiterate my ongoing dismay at the absence of so many Universal-International title on DVD and/or Blu-ray.

I think it’s worth noting here at the end of this piece that it appears to be the 100th title I have tagged as a film noir, a small milestone. Mind you, I’ve no doubt that a number of those I’ve included over the years will be regarded by some as marginal entries. Ah well, so be it.

Kansas City Confidential

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Just a glance at the ingredients is sometimes enough to tell you you’re going to like the house specialty. First up, we have a carefully planned and executed heist, added to that is a bunch of edgy and suspicious hoods, a vindictive and brutal police force, and a textbook example of a fall guy. Kansas City Confidential (1952) consists of the kind of components that spell noir in unmistakably flickering neon. It’s all about double-crosses and cheats, keeping the other guy guessing and off-guard while looking out for a chance to get even for the cheap brush-off fate has handed you.

Joe Rolfe (John Payne) is a classic noir protagonist, a poor sap who can’t seem to catch a break no matter what. He’s had an (incomplete) education and a war record to be proud of but he’s also had a little trouble with the law. A mistake on his part has led to his doing some time inside and now his prospects are a little dimmed. We first catch sight of him at work, driving a delivery van for a florist. Someone else sees him too, a man (Preston Foster) across the way with a stopwatch is timing is movements. Why? Because a heist, an armored car raid, is being set up and part of that setup is hanging a frame round the neck of Joe Rolfe. The police will be sweating, and beating, the innocent delivery guy while the real thieves are making their getaway with $1.2 million along for their trouble. The beauty of this raid, aside from the convenient patsy to occupy the law, is the idea to make all the participants wear masks that means their anonymity (and thus their inability to identify or be identified) is ensured. The concept of honor among thieves has always been a sour joke and brains behind this robbery is well aware of that and so has taken these steps so as to avoid having to depend on any such fairy tales. By the time the police have finished pummeling Rolfe and released him he hasn’t much beyond cold shoulders and welfare to look forward to, that and a desire to find the men who put him in this bind. He’s handed one lead – a criminal called Pete Harris (Jack Elam) has recently lit out unexpectedly for Tijuana in Mexico and it’s just possible it may be to avoid the attentions of the law. And so Rolfe heads south, looking for men he’s never seen, money he’s never laid hands on, and a reputation he might never retrieve.

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Noir from the 50s has a slightly different feel and flavor to it, the crimes that typically underpin such stories tend to be less personal than those of the previous decade. While the focus remains on the individuals involved and the consequences faced by them, there is an increasing shift towards organized crime and a frequently faceless threat. It’s kind of appropriate, therefore, that the villains of this piece are essentially faceless men, career criminals stripped of all identity beyond their own left-handed professionalism, and answerable only to another disguised figure. Even our hero in this story of deception, deceit and illusion indulges in the same chameleon-like behavior, stepping into the shoes of another man in order to coax his enemies out into the open. The setting is altered too, although the movie opens in an urban environment it soon moves out of the city to a small Mexican vacation resort, a place tourists usually visit for the fishing but the people we’re watching are angling for something else.  Anyway, regardless of what variations on the classic noir formula are on view, director Phil Karlson turns in a characteristically strong piece of work. He moves the camera around with great fluidity, catching every subtle nuance in what is a tricky game of bluff and counter-bluff.

I’ve talked before about John Payne’s noir work and I’ll just reiterate here that he was particularly skilled in nailing the resigned quality that is such an important part of make-up of characters in this type of cinema. The role here suits him well and he has the innate toughness you’d expect of a war veteran, the intelligence of an educated man but also the weariness of one who’s had to face up to the unpalatable fact that life doesn’t play fair all the time. In addition to Payne, there’s a supporting cast to die for. Preston Foster was well cast in a reasonably complex part – it called for a confident, avuncular smoothness in one respect but also required a diamond-hard core.

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Coleen Gray is fine too playing a woman who is having the wool pulled over her eyes by just about everyone yet she’s supposed to be on the verge of becoming a lawyer; while this isn’t any criticism of the actress I think the script is probably at its weakest, or least logical anyway, on this score. The other woman in the cast is Dona Drake who was clearly having a good time as a flirtatious souvenir seller. And of course we have the holy trinity of heavies in Jack Elam, Lee Van Cleef and Neville Brand. I sometimes think it’s a shame all three don’t get to spend more time on screen together, but then again it may have just led to character actor gluttony  – one way or another, we do get to see a lot of all of them and there’s really not a lot to complain about.

Kansas City Confidential is a film that spent a long time in public domain hell as far as commercial releases are concerned. For a long time the only way to see the movie was by viewing grotty copies with fuzzy contrast and non-existent detail. Then, some years ago, MGM put out a quality version of the title on DVD in the US and it was a revelation. There have been a few Blu-ray releases since then but, by all accounts, these are waxy-looking affairs which haven’t been restored but simply had flaws (and vital detail too) digitally scrubbed away. As far as I’m aware, the old MGM DVD remains the best edition on the market. Digital issues and quibbles aside, the film is an excellent film noir, a highlight in the resumés of the cast and the director.

 

 

Santa Fe Passage

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All westerns are about journeys. In some cases this journey is explicit and external, involving some pioneering trip along or beyond the frontier. At other times it’s implicit, an internal or spiritual quest which the hero embarks on leading to the discovery of some truth or a better understanding of himself. As much as anything it’s the setting of the western which lends itself to stories of this type – if you’re going to tell such a tale, then what better time or place to do so than one on the fringes of civilization amid a harsh and primal landscape. For me, when the two concepts of the journey, the external and the internal, coincide the results are almost always satisfying. Santa Fe Passage (1955) is one of those movies, a case of seeing the hero strike out into the wilderness and simultaneously (impelled by circumstances) delving into his own consciousness to confront his preconceptions and prejudices.

It’s always nice to see a movie come charging out of the starting blocks, and that’s precisely what happens here. Two riders are driving their mounts hard over the baked Utah landscape, one clearly in hot pursuit of the other. The quarry, a Kiowa, is soon overtaken and savagely clubbed to the ground with the butt of his pursuer’s rifle. This is Sam Beekman (Slim Pickens), a wagon train scout, and he hauls his captive back to where his partner, Kirby Randolph (John Payne), is waiting with the westbound travelers. With the Kiowa evidently on the warpath, Randolph hits upon what he thinks is a clever ploy, namely distracting the war party with an offer to trade while the wagons roll ahead to safety. However, he miscalculates badly and only discovers later that those he’s responsible for end up massacred and the few survivors left mutilated. If the guilt for this piece of poor judgment weighs heavily on his soul, it’s as nothing compared to the near universal revulsion and hatred the mere utterance of his name invokes. Randolph becomes an outcast among his own and virtually unemployable. Despite all this, he’s presented with a second chance, an opportunity to redeem himself, when a freight outfit needs a scout. Jess Griswold (Rod Cameron) and Aurelie St Clair (Faith Domergue) are taking a shipment of arms to sell in Santa Fe and, even though the latter voices strong objections based on his tarnished reputation, decide to hire Randolph to see them through safely. The trip will be an eventful one, filled with physical dangers and peril, though none quite as challenging as the psychological hurdles the scout is going to have to negotiate along the way.

Over the years, I’ve managed to feature the work of most of the major figures from the classic era of cinema, particularly those who worked in westerns. A notable exception though is William Witney, a director whose critical reputation has gradually grown, no doubt helped by the fact that people like Tarantino have spoken of his work with admiration. Early in his career, Witney worked extensively on serials before moving on to features and thereafter alternating between those and a significant amount of television work. His output was so substantial that I’m sure most people with an interest in classic cinema or TV will have come across examples of his directing at some point. Unsurprisingly, given his background, action and pace were his forte, and Santa Fe Passage certainly packs plenty into its hour and a half running time. There’s a kind of brutal honesty to this movie, something I recall noticing in one of Witney’s later productions Arizona Raiders too, and is particularly noticeable in the scenes depicting the chilling aftermath of the early wagon train massacre. It’s also to be found in the frank presentation of uncomfortable attitudes and how they are addressed and overcome, which I’ll touch on presently, although this aspect probably has its roots in Clay Fisher’s original story. Additionally, the harshly beautiful Utah locations, where the bulk of the action plays out, provide yet another layer of realism to it all.

What raises this picture above the straightforward adventure variety, not that there’s anything wrong such movies of course, is the characterization of the leads. In particular, the roles undertaken by John Payne and Faith Domergue offer a fascinating insight into guilt, bitterness and self-loathing, all sparked by racial stereotyping and the fear of miscegenation. Both characters carry their burden of guilt for different reasons and this threatens to consume them whole. In Payne’s case, the guilt appears to have twisted around and turned in upon itself; the bitterness stemming from his awareness of mistakes made manifests itself in a violent distrust of the Indian, or even anyone of mixed blood. It sets up a wonderful dramatic conflict as it seems to me that his character is galled by his own prejudice even as he indulges in it. One could argue that the resolution, when it comes around, is too pat and convenient but it’s fitting for all that and it does complete the journey the filmmakers have been on. The whole thing also serves to blur the line between hero and villain, especially when Rod Cameron is cast in such an ambiguous role – he’s more understanding and tolerant than Payne yet behaves treacherously, although his motivations in that regard are not entirely ignoble. The net result of all this is that the viewer is forced to think and weigh up the good and bad in all concerned, and that’s never a bad thing.

I think there may be a commercial DVD of Santa Fe Passage available in Italy, though I wouldn’t be too sure about its quality, and it can be viewed easily enough online. So far, it doesn’t appear to have been granted an official release anywhere and, once again, I’m indebted to John  Knight for his kind assistance in ensuring I was able to watch a good print of the film. As has been noted before, too many of John Payne’s films remain unavailable and this is one of the best examples, in my opinion. This is a fine mid-50s western, the kind that typically offers plenty of food for thought alongside strong entertainment value. Check it out if you get the chance.

 

 

Rails Into Laramie

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There are so many Universal-International westerns that you could pretty much run a blog devoted entirely to the studio’s output alone. With such an abundance of titles, it’s only natural that there should be a wide range in terms of type, budget and overall quality. Some had more spent on them, some featured significant amounts of location filming and some were shot largely on sets. Personally, I like them all, and can generally find something positive to take away from all varieties. Rails Into Laramie (1954) is one of the lower budget efforts, using stock footage and filmed on studio interiors for the most part. It’s a movie that eluded me for a long time and I want to express my gratitude to Jerry E for his help in ensuring I finally got around to seeing it.

The railway, that powerful symbol of westward expansion and the unstoppable advance of civilization, has been at the heart of many westerns. To chart the progress of the railroad is to chart the course of the American west itself so it’s obviously going to feature heavily in pictures set on the ever shifting frontier. When the iron horse appears to have stalled at the Wyoming town of Laramie questions arise as to why this should be so. Someone in Laramie has a vested interest in seeing the work come to a halt, some who’s making plenty of money out of the hard-drinking and hard living construction gangs. And so the army decide to send someone, just one man and not the detail of soldiers the local bigwigs have requested, to investigate and try to get the operation up and running again. The choice is Jefferson Harder (John Payne), a sergeant nearing the end of his stint in uniform but a man familiar with and comfortable among the kind of saloon detritus likely to be responsible for the delays. Harder isn’t exactly welcomed with open arms by Laramie’s dignitaries, partly due to their disappointment at not getting a full detachment and also because of his friendship with Jim Shanessy (Dan Duryea). Shanessy and Harder are old army buddies and former rivals for the affections of the former’s wife, Helen (Joyce Mackenzie). It’s clear enough from early on that Harder is going to have to go up against his friend as he’s the one behind the stoppages. What remains to be seen though is how he’s going to achieve much with virtually a whole town against him, the machinations of the slippery Shanessy to contend with, and the uncertain allegiance of saloon owner Lou Carter (Mari Blanchard).

One thing which immediately struck me when watching Rails Into Laramie was that there were a few passing similarities to the classic Destry Rides Again. There’s the basic set up of a corrupt town, the ignominious arrival of an improbable savior, the tough female saloon owner, and the leading role undertaken by women in the implementation of justice – and I’ll return to that last aspect presently. At least some of this can probably be attributed to the fact screenwriter D D Beauchamp also worked on Destry, George Marshall’s remake of his own 1939 original. All these elements are very welcome of course and add a lot to the entertainment of the piece, but there are problems, or weaknesses anyway, present in the script too. There are a few plot strands which are introduced and promise to be interesting yet are dropped almost immediately and lead nowhere in particular. There would appear to be potential for an added layer of conflict stemming from the triangle created by Payne, Duryea and Mackenzie, not to mention the allure of Blanchard drifting in the background. We learn that both men wanted Mackenzie in the past but that’s it, no more mileage is gained from that, or the possibility of Blanchard causing Duryea to consider straying. And then there’s the selection of an all female jury to try Duryea, an example of women’s rights which was ahead of its time compared to the rest of the country. Aside from the opportunity for further social comment, there was a suggestion that the women’s actions in participating in jury service would endanger their men. Again though, this is not followed up on and simply peters out.

I tend to think of Audie Murphy when Jesse Hibbs’ name comes up due to his having taken charge of a number of the star’s best films. Hibbs was one of those stable hands who could be relied upon to turn in a solid piece of work and that’s more or less what we get with Rails Into Laramie. There’s nothing flashy on show but it’s a competently directed film. With the so-so script, the responsibility on the performers is increased, though the likes of Payne and Duryea were quite capable in this respect. I’ve seen more of Payne’s noir work but he makes for a personable and convincing enough western lead too. There’s not so much of that bruised quality on display that he used to such good effect in film noir, still the toughness remains and you don’t doubt his ability when it comes to mixing it with the villains. Duryea could play charming, dissembling bad guys in his sleep and his role here honestly is a walk in the park for him. There’s not much physical threat posed by him, it’s more a behind the scenes schemer and fixer this time, and that aspect is left in the capable hands of a sneering and dangerous Lee Van Cleef. Of the two female performers Joyce Mackenzie had a largely thankless part, offering sympathy and support but seeing little development in her character. Mari Blanchard got dealt a far stronger hand and played it to the hilt too. She brings an edgy ambiguity to the part – leaving both Payne and Duryea (and the viewer too) unsure exactly what way she’s going to leap. Then there’s the marvelous James Griffith who adds such value to every film he appears in – I just saw him in a delightful little cameo in Kubrick’s The Killing the other day as it happens – and turns in one of the most memorable bits of work in the movie as the nervous but loyal marshal.

The last few years have seen more and more Universal-International westerns becoming available in various countries. However, Rails Into Laramie remains unreleased anywhere to the best of my knowledge. It’s a modest picture and it wouldn’t rank as one of the top tier efforts by the studio. Even so, it is solidly entertaining and I’d certainly appreciate a release. Again, my thanks to Jerry for making this piece possible.

 

The Crooked Way

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Confusion and disorientation, a world suddenly tipped out of kilter, false and mistaken identities – such phenomena are par for the course in the film noir universe. Taken individually, these elements crop up in countless ordinary thrillers, but mix them all together in an urban setting with a story of organized crime and it moves into noir territory. The late 40s saw the full flowering of this type of cinema, when the initial optimism of the post-war years was just fading enough to allow disillusionment to take a firmer hold. The Crooked Way (1949) is one of those low budget efforts that is easily overlooked – the stars and director are people only familiar to hardcore movie fans, although the cinematographer, quite rightfully, still draws huge critical praise. What’s more this film often gets overshadowed by a glossier, more expensive production with a strikingly similar theme. I reckon it’s a touch unfair as there are plenty of positive ingredients; it’s by no means a perfect movie, but it does deserve a bit more credit and attention than it’s normally afforded.

Eddie Rice (John Payne) is on the point of being discharged from an army hospital in San Francisco. He’s seen sitting in a doctor’s office while questions are fired at him, questions like where he came from and what he did. Well, Eddie doesn’t have any answers for the simple reason that he has no memory. There’s a piece of shrapnel lodged in his brain, in an inoperable spot, and as a result he’s suffering from amnesia. All that’s known is that he joined up in Los Angeles using the name of Eddie Rice. The doctor’s advice is to go back to LA, see and be seen, and maybe someone will remember him, give him some lead about his vanished past. So that’s exactly what he does, and no sooner has he stepped out of Union Station than he runs slap bang into two guys who seem to know him very well indeed. These are two cops (Rhys Williams & John Doucette) and neither one is thrilled to run into him. This is vaguely unsettling for Eddie but a greater shock awaits him at the station house when he learns that his real name is actually Riccardi, and he’s got a rap sheet as long as his arm. Lots of films noir feature regular guys stumbling into trouble and desperately trying to escape it, but in this case that’s not possible; whatever else a man can do, he can’t run away from himself. The temptation is there alright and Eddie weighs it up yet there’s that fundamental philosophical desire to know oneself as well as one can. No, he’s going to have to stay, to discover what kind of man he was and why he did the things he did. To do so, he must reacquaint himself with the woman he once loved (Ellen Drew) and the partner (Sonny Tufts) he crossed up and sent to prison. Trying to trace back through the blank pages of his own past is a big enough ask in itself, but Eddie’s quest for his own identity becomes even harder when he finds himself beaten, framed for murder and running from both the mob and the law.

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In 1946 Joseph L Mankiewicz made Somewhere in the Night, telling the story of a veteran with amnesia returning to LA to trace his background and unearthing some disconcerting facts. It was produced at Fox and exhibits all the gloss that studio could afford to give its movies. The basic premise is quite similar to that of The Crooked Way and I imagine more people have seen or heard of it – that loaded, evocative title can’t hurt any either. It’s a fairly good picture on its own terms, but if you put these two amnesia films up against each other, then I’d have to plump for The Crooked Way every time. This is partly down to the grittiness which goes hand in hand with a lower budget, and also the strong reliance on authentic LA locations. On top of that, there were two men behind the camera whose presence is a significant part of why the film works for me: Robert Florey and John Alton. I guess few will know the name of Florey nowadays – he was one of those émigré directors who came to Hollywood in the early thirties and worked mostly on B pictures before moving into television, where his credits are extensive. The thing about Florey is he had a background in expressionism and consequently his work has a strong visual sense that’s ideal for capturing mood and atmosphere. In addition to this film, I strongly recommend checking out his direction of Perchance to Dream from The Twilight Zone, one of the finest episodes of that excellent series. John Alton should, of course, need no introduction. A true artist, Alton’s deep black shadows and imaginative lighting are a joy. Any film he worked on bore his unmistakable stamp, and The Crooked Way is no exception.

This is quite a pivotal film in the career of John Payne. George Sherman’s Larceny had got him into crime pictures and The Crooked Way builds upon that. Payne was a good fit for noir in that there was a toughness about him but also a lived-in, kicked around look which such movies required. His role was a demanding one, calling for innocence, bewilderment and a bit of an edge too. The character of Eddie is complex due to the fact he starts out as someone trying his best to be decent yet also lacking assurance. He is, by necessity, a man aware of nothing beyond the here and now but he’s also keen to know how he got to that place, what path in life led him there. When the revelations come, Eddie is shocked and confused since it doesn’t square with the way he feels about himself. Payne is fine at getting across the nervy uncertainty of the character, the flashes of aggression which are buried deep within. The movie was a good stepping stone for him, laying the foundations for strong performances in later noir vehicles like 99 River Street and Kansas City Confidential. Ellen Drew, in the films I’ve seen, often appeared to be handed passive roles. The Crooked Way gave her more to do though by casting her as a woman who’s had a hard enough time and thus encourages a more gutsy performance, even stopping a bullet meant for Payne at one point. As the principal villain, Sonny Tufts is suitably mean, his introduction during the interrogation of a mob informer setting the tone for what follows. In support, there’s good work from Rhys Williams, John Doucette and Percy Helton.

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The Crooked Way was released on DVD in the US by Geneon a long time ago now. It’s not a bad transfer, a bit harsh looking in places maybe, but it’s also interlaced. Some of the other titles from that imprint have subsequently appeared or been announced from Olive and Kino, so I’d like to hope a stronger version would hit the market sooner or later – and I’ve just noted that it appears Kino do indeed have plans for this title in the summer. The movie isn’t without its faults of course – there’s a heavy reliance on coincidence on a number of occasions (but, in all honesty, that could be said of a lot of noir pictures) and the ending is just a little too pat. Still, I don’t see these as major flaws of the type to ruin the viewing experience. Overall, this is a good solid noir, based on an interesting premise, beautifully composed and shot, oozing the requisite hard-boiled feel. It’s the kind of half-forgotten film I always like to tell people about, if they have the time or patience to listen to me. I say give it a try, it might surprise you.

 

 

99 River Street

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There are worse things than murder. You can kill someone an inch at a time.

I guess it’s no secret that I have a real fondness for low budget movies; there’s something fascinating about seeing how filmmakers are able to stretch their resources. There have been a fair few highly successful films noir that fall into this category, and that shouldn’t be all that surprising. Noir is arguably the type of movie best suited to budget filmmaking, relying less on location and high production values than almost any other style of picture. In truth, a clever director and cameraman can not only transcend the limitations of a tight budget, but can actually turn it to their advantage. Those directors who spent much of their early careers working in the B units were able to capitalize on their years of experience, and the better ones could make a virtue out of austerity. Phil Karlson was one of those who managed to make quality movies even when the finances were severely restricted. 99 River Street (1953) may be his best film noir, Kansas City Confidential would possibly challenge it for that honor though, and it’s certainly among his better films.

For Ernie Driscoll (John Payne) it wasn’t so much that he could have been a contender – he was. The opening sees Driscoll slugging it out in the ring during a world heavyweight title fight. He actually floors the champion and is just ten seconds away from glory. However, Driscoll is a classic noir protagonist – fate has got his number – so his opponent picks himself up, lands a lucky punch that opens a bad wound over his eye, and wins the bout on a TKO. Just to underline Driscoll’s fall from the big time, the camera pulls back to reveal that the fight scene we’ve been watching is in reality a syndicated rerun on TV. Driscoll’s sitting there, reliving every blow traded, torturing himself, as the pain flickers across his battle-scarred features. With his boxing career in tatters, Driscoll makes a living as a cab driver. He’s not exactly thrilled with this, but that’s nothing compared to the contempt felt by his disgruntled wife Pauline (Peggie Castle). Pauline is a former showgirl, bitterly disappointed at the way things have turned out and convinced that Driscoll is nothing but a loser. She may have a point too; not only is Pauline about to run off with a small time hood, Victor Rawlins (Brad Dexter), but Driscoll finds himself suckered into believing a melodramatic tale spun by an aspiring Broadway actress, Linda James (Evelyn Keyes). The point here is that Driscoll is one of those eternal fall guys, the kind of man who has bad things happen to him just because. As such, it’s no major surprise, least of all to Driscoll himself I guess, when he finds himself framed for murder and on the run. Nevertheless, he does have a few things in his favor – a kind of two-fisted toughness and never say die tenacity, and a couple of friends in his boss (Frank Faylen) and a repentant Linda. With the odds heavily stacked against him, and time running short, Driscoll has no option but to scour the city at night in pursuit of the real murderer in the hopes of catching up with him before he skips the country.

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Lots of movies tend to get tagged as gritty, and not all of them deserve it. 99 River Street is the real deal though – positively brimming with lowlife characters, sudden and brutal violence, and the stench of hard luck. Driscoll is marked as a loser right from the first scene, but just about every character we meet fits that description to a greater or lesser extent. The strongest examples of film noir introduced viewers to a gallery of misfits, chiselers, cheats, and saps. 99 River Street seems to have nothing else but such people, and director Phil Karlson positively revels in the sordid, seedy world these guys inhabit. The movie studiously avoids any sense of glamor, telling its tale against a backdrop of run down stores, dingy back rooms and waterfront bars. The decrepit city setting was a staple of many a noir picture, and Karlson uses it well to evoke a world of lost hopes and broken dreams. He also keeps the pace brisk and that helps add to the sense of urgency of Driscoll’s quest. Stylistically, the film only intermittently features what could be termed classic noir visuals in the first half – the “confession” by Linda in a deserted theater being one example – but cameraman Franz Planer does turn it on as the climax approaches. The final chase and fight along the dockside makes use of a selection of long, medium and close-up shots, and bathes them all in atmospheric, inky shadows. Karlson was doing some great work in the 50s, and a movie like 99 River Street genuinely celebrates the meanness and toughness of film noir at its best. It’s also interesting to note the way the movie plays around with the viewer’s perceptions of reality – the opening sequence that turns out to be a television recording, and the theater scene that tricks both the audience and the lead character.

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John Payne is something of a forgotten man these days, probably due to the fact that most of his best work was done in B movies and programmers. Starting with The Crooked Way in 1949 though, he made a series of tough and entertaining noirs and westerns, frequently working for Karlson or Allan Dwan. He had a rough, lived-in look about him that made him believable in these movies, and 99 River Street drew on that weary, beaten appearance. Payne gave a very edgy performance, full of rage, frustration and a kind of bitter misogyny. He completely convinced as a man who knew himself for a sap, who allowed himself to be strung along by the wrong kind of women all his life, and despised himself and them for it. His sudden bursts of violence when provoked too far had a ring of authenticity to them – whenever he landed a punch you could tell he meant it to do the maximum damage. Of course, a hard character like this needs something or someone to balance them, to ground them and stop them sliding too far into macho aggression. Evelyn Keyes was nearing the end of her big screen career, having hit the heights in Gone with the Wind, and so had just the right kind of faded disillusionment for her role. Initially, she comes across as slightly skittish and flaky, but soon proves her worth when the chips are down. There’s a common misconception that the only interesting women in film noir are those who play the femme fatale. However, I’m of the opinion that the frequently unsung Girl-Friday parts are every bit as significant. Keyes’ role here is vital in eliciting sympathy for Payne – without her presence and loyalty, there’s a danger of his less attractive qualities running out of control. That’s not to say the femme fatale, Peggie Castle in this case, is unimportant here. However, her role is much more one-dimensional and consequently less interesting. The film features a particularly strong supporting line-up: Frank Faylen is very likeable as Payne’s stoic boss, and Brad Dexter does a nice line in smarm and self-interest. Rounding out the cast is Jay Adler as a vindictive fence and Jack Lambert as his strong-arm sidekick.

There are a few options as far as DVD editions of 99 River Street are concerned. The film has been released as a MOD disc in the US via MGM, and it’s also available on pressed disc in Spain from Art House/Paycom. I have the Spanish release, and the transfer is pretty good. There are some instances of softness here and there, but it’s clean and sharp for the most part. One criticism I do have is that I found the sound a little low at times – not very poor, but noticeable. The disc has no extra features and subtitles are not forced – they can be disabled from the setup menu. All in all, I think 99 River Street is a fine example of early 50s film noir, exhibiting a harder edge than the usual 40s variety. It also shows off Karlson’s ability to shoot lean, tight little movies economically. He’s a director who’s not really known outside of film buff circles and I think his stronger films, such as this one, deserve a bit more attention. It’s worth checking out.