The Quiet American

The Quiet American (1958) is an adaptation by Joseph L Mankiewicz of Graham Greene’s novel of the same name and it, unintentionally from the filmmaker’s point of view, poses the question of whether a movie is best approached or evaluated on an emotional or an intellectual level. Greene was very unhappy with the changes Mankiewicz made to his book, particularly with the alterations to the political sentiments the author had written into his story. Greene’s objection highlights what I think of as the intellectual approach, for viewing a film and assessing its worth or success in terms of its political perspective strikes me as a coldly intellectual exercise. Conversely, examining how a movie deals with the human interactions that underpin the story is surely a more emotional approach. Given that I have long been convinced that art is much more closely related to the heart than the head, it probably won’t come as any surprise to learn which view I tend to favor.

The Quiet American opens near the end of the story and works back from there in search of a beginning that will allow all the events and personalities involved to fall into place. The titular character (Audie Murphy) who remains unnamed throughout, unlike in Greene’s novel, is already dead when we viewers come on the scene. His body is floating face down near the banks of the river in Saigon, discovered by chance by revelers celebrating Chinese New Year. From here we are taken back to the months before his demise, to the time when he first arrived in Vietnam. So the bulk of the movie is related via flashback, unfolding from the point of view of Thomas Fowler (Michael Redgrave), a British journalist and acquaintance of the anonymous American, as he conducts a one-man wake in the morgue, reflecting on the life and death of the young man reposing on the slab before him. Those few months defined the course of the lives of three people: Fowler, the American, and Phuong (Giorgia Moll), the young Vietnamese girl who is loved by both of them. Regardless of the political background of the tale, and the points about the role of foreign intervention in South East Asia that Greene wanted to make, this is a love story first and last; remove that element and there is nothing to relate that has any resonance beyond contemporary concerns. What matters here, and what the movie focuses on, is the triangle formed by those three people, with Phuong acting as the anchor.

As I mentioned above, Greene felt aggrieved at the way the script radically altered the points he wanted to make in his book. I can understand that frustration on the part of the author, and I can sympathize with what he must have seen as wholesale distortion of his vision. I read and enjoyed his novel many years ago yet I still appreciate this movie for what it is, for what it does rather than what it does not. Basically, I see the changes that Greene disliked as only background details as far as the movie is concerned – those elements might be integral to the aims of the novel, but Mankiewicz was making a movie and both his medium and the aims he had were very different. I am of the opinion that any filmmaker who emphasizes the purely contemporary elements of a story at the expense of the timeless aspects is straying into the realms of commentary. In short, I see film as a form of artistic expression, an analysis of the human condition, and that is something eternal rather than ephemeral.

Ultimately, what counts is whether or not the movie works on the terms by which it was conceived. I regard it mainly as both a love story and as a contemplation of the way we frequently project visions of ourselves and the world around us onto those we love. As such, I consider it to have succeeded in achieving it aims. Of course one can dig deeper and read more into it all, seeing different slants on relationships adopted by the old world and the new, the contrasting views of young and old, and so on. Nevertheless, it all comes back to the portrayal and interpretation of love and what that means to various individuals in the end. The background of the story operates in relation to the characters like the MacGuffin in a Hitchcock film, but even then only up to a point. After all, when Fowler makes his fateful decision, he is motivated by a toxic cocktail of pride, jealousy, fear and thwarted passion and not something as prosaically dreary as political convictions.

On paper, one would say that having Audie Murphy face off against Michael Redgrave would lead to an uneven and unfair contest. On celluloid and in fact , however, the contest is a remarkably even and productive one. Murphy had grown steadily as an actor by the late 1950s and this kind of dramatic role was well within his capabilities. There is still a lot of fresh energy about him, and that quality is used to superb effect when placed in contrast to Redgrave’s worn and dissipated cynicism. That fresh faced enthusiasm always cloaked a deeper steel and there is never any doubt about the resilience of the idealistic young man he was portraying. When he trades words with Redgrave’s weary writer, the latter may indicate disdain for their naivety but he never really questions their sincerity, and nor do the viewers. Redgrave is every bit as good as the complete opposite, a tired and spent man whose surface smugness masks chronic insecurity and desperation. We believe it when Murphy shows drive and positivity, and that sense of credibility is just as strong when Redgrave paints his own picture of desolation and emptiness.

Italian actress Giorgia Moll is wonderfully unknowable as the focal point for the affections of those two very different men. There is a lot of passivity about her character, right up till the end anyway. Her final scene adds a great deal of punch and power though, largely because of the apparent indifference and insouciance she displays earlier. The cast is fairly self-contained, but Claude Dauphin lends attractive support as the deceptively relaxed policeman who misses very little. Bruce Cabot has what amounts to a cameo as an American journalist and Richard Loo, who popped up all over the place throughout the 40s and 50s whenever an Asian character was required, is coolly efficient as Redgrave’s contact with the insurgents.

The Quiet American was given a release on Blu-ray by Twilight Time some years ago but I never got around to picking it up and have had to make do with less than stellar DVD versions. It’s a shame no company in the UK has been able to put this film on the market on BD so far. The story was filmed in 2002 by Philip Noyce, with Michael Caine and Brendan Fraser in the Redgrave and Murphy roles, and it stuck closer to the sentiments of the novel. I saw it at the time and while I thought it was fine (although I should say I’ve never been able to warm to Fraser in anything) I don’t think it was improved by being more faithful to its source. I can only say that I have never felt the need to revisit the 2002 film in twenty years whereas I’ve seen the Mankiewicz version multiple times.

Where the Sidewalk Ends

Otto Preminger’s Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950) has the feel of something that might have been cooked up had Cornell Woolrich and William P McGivern ever decided to collaborate on a story. There is that quality of the inescapable nightmare, a fatalistic vortex relentlessly dragging the protagonist down, while he is one of those big city cops who appears to be as uncomfortable in his own skin as he is in the department he works for. The end result is a form of psychological trial by ordeal, where the moral fiber of a man is measured by his ability to meet the challenge laid down by his own past.

Right from the beginning it is clear that Mark Dixon (Dana Andrews) is a man in trouble. The patience of his superiors in the police department with his brutal, two-fisted approach to the job is wearing perilously thin. What is perhaps more dangerous though is his appraisal of himself. It’s not voiced yet the truculence that pervades features, manner and posture clearly announces a deep-rooted dissatisfaction. With a final warning still ringing in his ears, he sets out to investigate the death of a rich out of town businessman. The victim ought to have been the mark in a rigged game of dice, but a bit of bad luck on the part of the mobsters running the racket leads to a misunderstanding, which leads to a scuffle, which leads to a murder. So Dixon is one of the bulls sent to investigate and is soon on the trail of the man being lined up as fall guy for the killing. Seeing as this is a story that is full to the brim with ill fortune and bad judgement calls, it is somehow inevitable that a man with a hair trigger temper such as Dixon is going to get into deeper strife when he finds himself alone with an antagonistic suspect. That’s exactly what happens, blows are traded and the suspect, a war veteran with a metal plate in his head, winds up dead on the floor. And it’s here that everything begins to spiral completely out of control. Shocked and panicked, Dixon attempts to cover up the accidental killing, but once he sets the ball rolling the momentum generated threatens to crush everything and everyone in its path, not least the dead man’s father-in-law.

The entire business is further complicated by the fact Dixon finds himself falling in love with the estranged wife (Gene Tierney) of the man he’s just killed. What follows is a variation on that noir trope of a man investigating a killing he is responsible for, the hunter essentially hunting himself. The personal angle and the need to see that blame is not wrongly placed on an innocent man adds some spice, as does the fact Dixon is all the time fighting an internal battle borne of the fact his own father was a career criminal. It sets up an intriguing study of the concept of justice and how it may be best achieved, as well as looking at the potential for attaining personal and professional redemption.

Where the Sidewalk Ends feels like something of a watershed movie. That whistling intro with the opening bars of Alfred Newman’s Street Scene playing over credits chalked on the sidewalk, suggestive of the casual impermanence of a crime scene and the expedience of the methods used to mark it out, as anonymous citizens stroll past seems apt given the way film noir – that genre that wasn’t even aware of its own name at the time – was moving along into other areas. As the new decade went on noir would move gradually away from those tales of personal misfortune and shift its focus onto wider societal ills, organized crime and institutional corruption. The director too would soon be on his way, leaving behind the restraints imposed by being under contract to a major studio.

Recently, after revisiting Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder I was watching one of the supplements on the Criterion Blu-ray where Foster Hirsch was commenting on the directors insistence on shooting that movie on authentic Michigan locations. Some of that fondness for using real locations comes through in Where the Sidewalk Ends too with much of the film shot on familiar Fox studio sets, but also taking the cameras out onto the streets of New York where possible to give it an air of genuine urban grit. The whole picture has a strong noir aesthetic, canted angles, telling close-ups, characters clustered in tight, claustrophobic spaces framed by doorways and windows, and plenty of shadows carefully lit and photographed by Joseph LaShelle.

Where the Sidewalk Ends was the fourth of five films Dana Andrews would make with Preminger. All of their collaborations are interesting and there’s not a bad movie among them. Andrews has always been a favorite of mine whatever genre he happened to be working in and I’m sure I’ve spoken before of that marvelous internalized style he used so effectively on so many occasions. The part of Mark Dixon allowed him to tap into that: his rage and hunger for violence barely contained every time he encounters Gary Merrill’s conceited gangster, the appalled horror at what he has done when he realizes the murder suspect is lying dead before him, and then the sickening, sliding sensation as he witnesses the net cast by the law drawing tighter around those who least deserve it. These are all different emotions and reactions yet all of them are perfectly conveyed with great subtlety and quietness by Andrews – superb screen acting. Gene Tierney was another veteran of Preminger’s movies, making four in total for the director over the years. One might say her character isn’t as directly involved in the story yet her presence is one of the primary drivers of the plot – the initial killing stemmed partially from her attendance at the dice game, her father called on her abusive ex and placed himself at the scene of the crime as a result of what happened to her, and Dixon’s journey back from the brink towards redemption could not take place without her.

Gary Merrill is good enough in the role of the villain, although he is off screen quite a bit. In a sense though, one could argue that Merrill is not the main villain, that honor belonging to Dixon’s father, the ghost of a long dead hoodlum haunting his son’s conscience and putting a hex on his character. An uncredited Neville Brand makes for a memorable sidekick, superficially tough but easy to crack under pressure. That pressure is applied not only by Andrews but also by Karl Malden as the newly appointed lieutenant who is keen to make a quick arrest. As Tierney’s cab driver father, and Malden’s prime suspect, Tom Tully is hugely endearing. Both Tully’s playing and Tierney’s devotion to him lend credibility to the conflict which assails Andrews as the plot unfolds. All of the supporting actors turn in good work, including Bert Freed, Craig Stevens and Ruth Donnelly. I want to add a brief word too for Grayce Mills, who only appears in one scene. Many of these studio productions contained seemingly throwaway moments, little vignettes that are easily overlooked yet frequently stick in the memory. Such is the case with the old widow living the basement below the apartment where Andrews runs into trouble – there is something touching and memorable about this old lady’s few telling lines about the insignificance of time to the aged, and how she sleeps in the parlor with the radio softly playing to assuage her loneliness.

Some years ago the Bfi released a Blu-ray set of three Otto Preminger films noir comprising Where the Sidewalk Ends, Whirlpool and Fallen Angel, but it now seems to have gone out of print. Anyone fortunate enough to have picked that set up will know that this movie (and the other two titles) looks exceptionally good so it’s worth keeping an eye out should it be reissued, or if a competitively priced used copy pops up.

So, this year ends with Where the Sidewalk Ends. My thanks to all of you who came along for the ride, and I hope I’ll be seeing you again in 2023.

The Angry Hills

If I were to offer the choice of a movie with a thin plot stretched beyond the point of endurance or one so crowded and packed with incident that breathing space is at a premium, which one would you choose? Well, the wise viewer would most likely pick neither and instead plump for something more balanced. As one whose curiosity typically allows wisdom to be elbowed aside, I would probably try the overloaded option. I mean, that one ought to be pacier and potentially more exciting, right? Not necessarily. The Angry Hills (1959) is a movie that has some weighty themes baked into it, but there is frankly too much going on, too many plot developments and too many characters drifting in and out of proceedings. In the end, it loses focus, simultaneously reducing the entertainment value and blurring or trivializing the more serious points it might have made.

The Angry Hills takes place in 1941, on the eve of and then in the period just following the German invasion of Greece. It starts with the arrival in Athens of  journalist Mike Morrison.The situation in the city could charitably be described as fluid and he’s keen to move on as soon as possible, or as soon as he’s had the opportunity to clean up and sample some of the local night life at least. Journalists get to know all kinds of people in the course of their work and an old acquaintance of Morrison’s passes on a list of Greeks who will be able to filter information through to British Intelligence in the months and years ahead. The idea is that a pressman will be in a better position to smuggle such a list out of the country before the city is occupied. Morrison frankly wants no part of this but he gets stuck with the list nonetheless. As a result, the movie develops into what is essentially a long chase back and forth across the country with the Germans, and those who would collaborate with them, in hot pursuit of the reluctant courier. As Morrison tries to dodge the Gestapo commanded by the enigmatic Conrad Heisler (Stanley Baker), he is plunged into the interior of the country where he becomes involved with the fledgling partisans trying to organize resistance and has a brief and tragic romance with a peasant girl (Gia Scala). By the by, he ends up back in Athens, still hunted by Heisler and his local stooge Dimitrios Tassos (Theodore Bikel), still looking for a way out and still endangering all those who cross his path.

Director Robert Aldrich was apparently unhappy with the film being recut by producer Raymond Stross, losing 10 minutes or more of footage. He felt it unbalanced the movie, which may be so but I’m not sure it really needed additional scenes. While I can’t claim to know exactly what was trimmed, I suspect it was material that related to Morrison’s first exit from Athens, a section that is papered over somewhat via a voiceover and a few brief shots indicating a longer journey. I do think the film is a little disjointed and there is a clumsiness to the narrative, but more footage in that sequence wouldn’t fix any of those problems. I’d actually go so far as to say the entire in country section with Gia Scala and the partisans could have been excised and not have really harmed the movie. In fact, it might have tightened it up considerably. There are themes touching on betrayal and trust, on the lengths people will go to for the sake of those they love which appear at various points, indeed the whole climactic sequence hangs on just this premise. However, a movie that uses the mechanism of the chase to power its narrative needs to keep moving, and preferably in one direction. What happens in The Angry Hills is that Morrison flees Athens with his enemies in hot pursuit, gets chased through the mountains, and then doubles back to the capital to essentially finish up where he started. It’s all too circular and means that too much happens to too many people for too long and to increasingly little effect. The story is an adaptation, by A I Bezzerides, of a Leon Uris novel; I’ve never read any of the man’s work so I can’t say if that contributes to the general muddle and torpor of it all, but I do know that screen versions of his books tended to be pretty lengthy affairs. Exodus is worthy but that running time of three and a half hours is incredibly taxing, while Topaz remains, in my opinion, by far the dullest and least involving of Alfred Hitchcock’s movies.

While there is no escaping the fact that there are problems with the scripting and structure, the movie does have positives. A glance at the cast list alone ought to attest to that. Robert Mitchum tops the bill as the newsman who claims to believe in little, to have seen too much, yet who experiences something of a spiritual or ethical reawakening. The seeds of a compelling character arc are certainly present but, once again, it’s never given the attention it ought to have received. Mitchum only seems truly involved emotionally in the latter stages, when the effects of the relationship with Gia Scala and the subsequent turn of events become clear. It arrives late and I’m not convinced it’s fully earned. While Gia Scala herself is fine as the village girl who gets under his skin, the romance that grows up between them is a half-hearted one at best. That entire section of the movie should provide the emotional core that supports the final act but the combination of the slowing down of the plot and that slightly lackluster romance weakens it.

A starring role for Mitchum is always a draw, even when it’s not all it could be. Something similar could be said for Stanley Baker, who gets a nice meaty part as the conflicted Gestapo chief. It is the type of role that one would expect to be pretty one-dimensional yet it is far from that. Baker had great presence and he could add layers of menace with the most subtle of glances and gestures, but he could also use that finely modulated voice to inject a quiet authority, a hint of warped civility in this case that makes his character all the more fascinating. His Heisler is easily the most interesting character on show, a potentially cartoonish villain invested with much needed depth. Elizabeth Muller is the woman who connects Mitchum and Baker and as such it’s a pivotal role, but neither the writing nor the performance really exploits that. In support, Theodore Bikel is marvelously sinister and corrupt, willing even to use the charms of his sister to further his aims. As that sister, Jocelyn Lane is stunningly attractive and it’s a pity her part wasn’t expanded. Marius Goring flits in and out of the picture  as an effete but dangerous German officer. There are small parts too for both Sebastian Cabot and the recently departed Leslie Phillips, the latter clearly enjoying his view of a surprising (taking into account the era in which the movie was made) and earthily energetic topless cabaret performance by Marita Constantinou.

The Angry Hills has been released on DVD via the Warner Archives in a very  attractive anamorphic ‘Scope transfer. Both the cast and the setting caught my attention initially and, as someone who has lived for many years in Athens, I welcomed the fact that the location shooting offered a glimpse of the changes that have occurred to the look of the city over time. The movie overall is a decidedly mixed bag, an odd blend of overcrowded plot with too much incident yet not enough character development to allow the viewer to properly engage or empathize. In short, the cast and location work ensure it remains watchable despite the structural flaws.

Vicki

One thing leads to another. A few weeks ago a bit of discussion on remakes came up, or to be more precise the relative merits of both Thorold Dickinson’s and George Cukor’s versions of Gaslight. Not long before that I’d been looking at Richard Boone in a movie directed by Bruce Humberstone, and it then occurred to me that Boone had starred in a remake of one of Humberstone’s earlier movies. Anyway, that meandering thought process led me back to Vicki (1953), a reworking of the proto-noir I Wake Up Screaming. Generally, I like to approach or assess movies on their own terms, as discrete pieces of work, where possible. Remakes make that a little trickier of course, particularly when one is very familiar with the other versions. Viewed on its own, Vicki is a moderate noir thriller of ambition, obsession and murder.

Vicki Lynn (Jean Peters) is a model, something which is immediately apparent from the opening shots of billboards and sundry advertisements, all prominently featuring her name and image and urging Joe Public to buy whatever it is she happens to be selling. However, perhaps I should have started off by stating that Vicki Lynn was a model for, despite her fame and ubiquity, our first glimpse of the lady herself is of the toes of her shoes protruding from beneath the sheet covering her corpse as it’s about to head off to the morgue. So Vicki Lynn was a model who has been murdered, and the story that plays out on the screen tells of the investigation into her demise and of the people most intimately involved in her rise and fall. Much of what transpires comes via a series of flashbacks courtesy of the interrogations of the main suspects at police headquarters. Most of the information, and therefore the impressions of the events and personalities, comes through the eyes of PR man Steve Christopher (Elliott Reid) and the victim’s sister Jill (Jeanne Crain). With the narrative nipping back and forth between past and present, all kinds of petty jealousies and rivalries are exposed. All the while, moving in and out of the shadows that surround the death of Vicki is the menacing yet awkward figure of lead detective Lt Ed Cornell (Richard Boone).

Established wisdom tends to hold that remakes pale in comparison with the works they seek to reimagine. My own experience, however, tells me that is not always the case, although there’s no getting away from the fact all of that is highly subjective. Still, I doubt one would find many viewers who would claim Vicki adds to, much less improves on, the version filmed a dozen years before. Both films derive from Steve Fisher’s novel and Dwight Taylor’s script with very little divergence on show. Harry Horner was an occasional director and Vicki is something of a workmanlike effort, with the odd instance of flair set off by Milton Krasner’s photography. In the main, it rarely grabs the attention and too many scenes exhibit a flatness that is vaguely disappointing.

That same year Jean Peters did good work in Niagara for Henry Hathaway and was even more impressive for Sam Fuller in Pickup on South Street. Admittedly, her role in this movie is limited to some extent but I thought her performance was just serviceable. I mean she comes across as attractive but I don’t get the sense of raw ambition that ought to underpin the character. Jeanne Crain fares better in the bigger and more grounded part as the surviving sister, although it’s not an especially complex role. This brings me to Richard Boone and Elliott Reid, and it’s hard not to have Laird Cregar and Victor Mature in mind while watching them work. Boone brings a different quality to his portrayal of Cornell, adopting a more buttoned up and physically restricted aura than was the case with Cregar. He spends much of his time with his head tilted ever so slightly down and the arms and elbows drawn in, like a man forever on the defensive, forever reining in dangerous impulses.  It’s an interesting approach and a valid one too in a part which demands a significant amount of pathos.

Elliott Reid, on the other hand, represents a major weakness at the heart of it all. Frankly, I do not see him as a leading man. In fact, I think the only other movie where I’ve seen him take the lead is The Whip Hand, a risible effort which his presence did little to improve. Reid’s forte was in supporting roles, particularly those which required a degree of smugness – he was fine in Woman’s World for Jean Negulesco and even better as the unctuous assistant prosecutor in Stanley Kramer’s Inherit the Wind. Support in this film comes via the ever excellent John Dehner, Casey Adams and a marvelously creepy Aaron Spelling.

Vicki came out on DVD years ago from Fox as an entry in their film noir line. Those titles tended to be handsome looking presentations and the transfer still holds up well with not very much in the way of damage, to my eye at least. It is not as strong a film as I Wake Up Screaming but it does have points in its favor – for one thing, Boone’s reinterpretation of the role of Cornell is never less than fascinating, as one would expect of that actor. I have to say I’m pleased that this movie is and has been accessible, even if it may never become a favorite. It’s worth checking out if you should come across it, just so long as you don’t pitch your hopes too high.

The Texas Rangers

There is something wildly entertaining about dipping into that era when Hollywood thought nothing of gleefully ripping pages if not whole chapters out of the history books in order to mix and match the characters, events and consequences the writers had decided would feature in their story. What makes it especially enjoyable is the fact this unapologetic grinding up facts had no agenda whatsoever, no nods to knowing, joyless postmodernism, nothing more in fact than a desire to present a piece of straightforward entertainment. The Texas Rangers (1951) works on the principle that the key to success is to pack as many big name outlaws as possible into the plot and have the hero take on this rogues’ gallery. If you are after an accurate depiction of the past, then it’s probably best to give this one a miss. If, on the other hand, you’re in the market for a pacy and uncomplicated western, this one will fit the bill.

Somewhat at odds with the fanciful nature of the tale which will unfold, the opening scenes attempt to place the characters in some sort of context. Suffice to say that we’re in Texas in the years following the Civil War and the Reconstruction. There is then a brief introduction to the main outlaws: Sam Bass (William Bishop) looks to be a model of charm and courtesy, smiling as he efficiently robs a train, only allowing the facade of politeness to drop momentarily as he ruthlessly guns down a less compliant passenger; John Wesley Hardin (John Dehner) is dapper, cool and devious, a gentlemanly killer; the most sadistic of all is Dave Rudabaugh (Douglas Kennedy), grinning maliciously as he savagely drives a knife through another man’s hand in the course of a not so friendly card game. Then there is Johnny Carver (George Montgomery) who, along with Buff Smith (Noah Beery Jr), runs into trouble during a botched bank raid. Actually, he runs into a bullet fired by a treacherous Sundance Kid (Ian Macdonald) and consequently ends up serving hard time as an accessory to murder.

So, with Texas descending into near anarchy as a result of the activities of the gang headed up by Sam Bass, the authorities have to be seen to act. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and Major John B Jones (John Litel) of the Texas Rangers has Carver and Smith released on probation, on condition they serve under him with the aim of smashing the power of the Bass gang. And that is essentially what it is all about, a not unfamiliar story of men with an unsavory past given an opportunity to redeem themselves by taking on and ultimately infiltrating a criminal organization. Along the way, there are enough  brawls, chases, shootouts, betrayals and twists to satisfy even the most demanding viewer.

Phil Karlson, working from a story by Frank Gruber and a script by Richard Schayer, rarely lets the action portrayed on screen pause for breath. Incident piles on top of incident and no situation is allowed to hang around till it grows unwelcome. The plot is tied to that classic theme of redemption which is never far from the surface in so many westerns of the 1950s, but it’s never particularly emphasized here. Nevertheless, it is present for those who want it, and I’m certainly a person who appreciates this aspect, even when (or perhaps because) it serves to ground the most escapist fare. For a movie that is almost determinedly lacking in pretension and which prides itself on its sense of urgency, The Texas Rangers looks both handsome and stylish. Karlson never misses a chance to employ a telling close-up, to shoot from an unexpected angle or to frame a scene in an interesting way.

George Montgomery’s laid-back style is used to fine effect in this movie, there’s an assurance coupled with exuberance about him, and when you factor in the easy grace with which he moves around the frame it’s evident how comfortable he was in a western setting. His two big dramatic scenes, played out with Jerome Courtland and Noah Beery respectively, are handled competently enough but the fact is that area wasn’t his strongest suit. Beery is his usual homespun self, appealingly diffident and upright. Of the outlaw band, William Bishop gets more screen time as befits his role and he’s fine, although there’s not the menace about him one might expect. However, that is certainly not the case with Douglas Kennedy. He looks and acts implacably mean, being responsible for, and seeming to relish, some of the more reprehensible pieces of villainy. John Dehner rarely fails to impress, even in minor roles, and he adds some scene-stealing polish to his part as the untrustworthy killer. Ian Macdonald scowls effectively and Jock Mahoney takes another step on the path that would lead him from stuntman to star. The only woman in the film is Gale Storm but her part as a newspaperwoman whose father was murdered by the Sundance Kid is sadly underdeveloped, tracing an arc from hostility to devotion that never feels the least bit convincing.

The Texas Rangers doesn’t appear to be available as a DVD or Blu-ray anywhere, or at least I haven’t been able to come across any releases. If anybody reading this happens to know of one, I’d be pleased to hear about it. However, it can usually be viewed online, and with satisfactory picture quality too. A good many of George Montgomery’s westerns are now available, although there are still a few notable absences such as this. Generally speaking, I think a lot of Columbia’s second string westerns don’t get a lot of love. Sure many of them are pretty frugal affairs, shot fast and sometimes featuring casts that won’t have the name recognition to make them easily marketable to a modern audience. That said, it’s worth remembering that movies of this type were the staples that kept the genre going for so long. The Texas Rangers is not a classic, but it is an attractive film that never wastes a moment of its 75 minute running time. Perhaps the biggest compliment I can pay is to say that it is simply a pleasure to watch.

Hell on Frisco Bay

So what do you want from a movie? Most of us will probably settle for an entertaining and competent piece of work that keeps us engaged for as long as the reels are turning. If there happens to be something in the mix that encourages us to think about some matter in a different light, or even simply encourages us to think, then that’s all to the good. Plenty of movies fulfill the first half of that equation and a respectable number will have enough of the second to elevate them above the routine or the run-of-the-mill. And then there is promise, and its deadly first cousin potential. Both of those may be hard to define but are, nevertheless, instantly recognizable, and both have colored responses to more than a few movies over the years. Hell on Frisco Bay (1955) certainly promises much, what with that cast and a plot derived from a William P McGivern novel. The end result? Well, it’s passable as entertainment and has a handful of themes sprinkled through the script that ought to have been explored further, but there is something vaguely unsatisfying about the whole affair.

Steve Rollins (Alan Ladd) is fresh out of San Quentin, having done five years for a crime he didn’t commit. He is still smarting over the loss of his freedom, the loss of his job and reputation, and also the loss of respect for his wife Marcia (Joanne Dru). She succumbed to weakness while he was inside and was unfaithful, meaning that Rollins’ dogged desire for vindication has an extra edge. He knows that the boss of the waterfront rackets Vic Amato (Edward G Robinson) was the figure responsible for the frame-up but finding a way to clear his name and bring it home to the mobster means tracking down certain men. One of them has disappeared, and is later confirmed to be dead, while his main dockland contact won’t be long in joining him. Despite the setbacks and the bitterness that is never far from the surface, Rollins bulldozes his way though the hoods and enforcers till he finds an opening. It will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with crime stories to learn that this opening gets busted wide open not merely as a result of the external pressure applied by Rollins, but via the scheming and antagonism seething within the criminals’ own closed circle.

I’ve seen Hell on Frisco Bay billed as a film noir, but I’m not convinced it really is. It is a crime story for sure, but neither the colorful ‘Scope visuals nor the overall tone of the piece recall noir to this viewer. I guess the presence of the leads, and the name of William P McGivern (Odds Against Tomorrow, Rogue Cop, The Big Heat) loom large and fuel that impression. While I don’t particularly care how or even if the movie is labeled, I will admit that those aforementioned factors raised my expectations. The plot, a typical McGivern tale of compromised cops, isn’t going to provide major surprises but a bigger problem is the flatness, the absence of (for the want of a better word) passion in its telling, and that’s not what I normally think of when approaching a Sydney Boehm script. There is of course an undercurrent of sadism to the needling relationship between Robinson and his top boy played by Paul Stewart. As well as that, the hypocrisy highlighted by Robinson’s outwardly devout domestic arrangements and his lusting after Stewart’s girlfriend (Fay Wray) adds another layer, but none of it feels especially compelling.

Director Frank Tuttle and cinematographer John Seitz enjoyed great success more than a decade earlier when they made This Gun for Hire with Alan Ladd. However, there is none of the freshness of that movie about Hell on Frisco Bay. Ladd was starting to look tired and dissipated at this point, not a major problem in itself given the background of his character, but despite his best efforts, I didn’t feel much of a spark about his quest for justice along the waterfront. Robinson fares better as the villain and there are a few nicely shot scenes juxtaposing the religious iconography around his home and the murderous intent he harbors there. He shares a few mean-spirited moments with Paul Stewart’s reluctant killer; the scene with them setting up a fateful hit as they verbally fence with one another while prowling around Fay Wray’s  tastefully feminine lounge as well as a subsequent piece of lethal horse-trading in Robinson’s kitchen gives another meaning to the term domestic suspense.

Joanne Dru was the top-billed actress in the movie and is handed an interesting back story, although this is never as fully explored as it might have been. Her role as a nightclub chanteuse means she gets to sing The Very Thought of You and It Had to Be You, although apparently dubbed by Bonnie Lee Williams on both. I don’t know if it’s down to the way Ladd’s character reacts to her throughout, but she seems ill-served by the script. Fay Wray is given a little more to work with as the former starlet now reduced to slumming with the waterfront hoods. In support, it is good to see William Demarest, Nestor Paiva, Willis Bouchey, Anthony Caruso, and a young Rod Taylor. I might also mention that Jayne Mansfield pops up in a brief bit part.

Hell on Frisco Bay has been released by the Warner Archive on both DVD and Blu-ray, so it’s easily accessible. I picked up the movie a few years ago based on the cast, the crew and the source material. I wouldn’t say I came to it hoping to have stumbled on some neglected gem – after all, those are not as common as we might like to believe – but I did think credits such as those it boasted would make it worthwhile viewing. Ultimately, while it is moderately entertaining and watching it is hardly a chore, it is not something I can see myself racing to return to. One to look out for should it appear in the broadcast schedules perhaps.

Some other views on the movie can be found at:
Vienna’s Classic Hollywood
Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings

Ten Wanted Men

Ever wonder why some movies don’t quite work even when everything one might reasonably associate with success seems to be in place, on paper at least. I’m not talking about outright flops here, failures where all the flaws are appear to be almost proudly displayed. No, I mean those vaguely disappointing films, the kind we come to initially with all kinds of heightened and elevated expectations due to the pedigree of the people involved. When those expectations aren’t met there is often an aftertaste to the experience that has a tartness and bitterness to it. Such films can rankle in a way a more brazen turkey never will. Ten Wanted Men (1955) was one of those titles that had provoked dissatisfaction in me when I viewed it. The deficit between what it promised and what it delivered was a source of discontent for me for a long time, and so I thought I might revisit it to see how it would fare when approached in a different frame of mind. Read on…

Western movies whose plots revolve around range wars are legion, that collision of ambition, greed and vanity providing storylines and thematic possibilities that are ripe for exploitation. When a little extra spice in the form of romantic rivalry or sexual obsession is added to the mix, it’s not unreasonable to think that what is finally served up will be even more tantalizing. Such is the case with Ten Wanted Men, where after an exciting and tense yet ultimately deceptive opening, the character of John Stewart (Randolph Scott) is introduced. He’s just had a harmless laugh at the expense of his greenhorn brother (Lester Matthews) and nephew Howie (Skip Homeier). Stewart is a big man in the territory, and the lavish party he is hosting is a testament to his generosity and largesse. As this is a fairly quick moving picture not much time is wasted in presenting the main source of conflict which will carry the viewer through till the climax. This is embodied in the person of Wick Campbell (Richard Boone), a neighbor of Stewart’s and a rival for the right to dominate the land.

If that all sounds somewhat feudal, the theme is further alluded to by the fact that Campbell not only yearns for but also feels himself entitled to the affections of Maria Segura (Donna Martell), the young Mexican girl he has nurtured. That she does not reciprocate that feeling is one thing, but matters are brought to a head by the interest Howie shows in the girl. When she seeks sanctuary and protection under Stewart’s roof all of Campbell’s pent up resentment and thwarted passion burst forth. Emotionally burnt and humiliated, he must have vengeance, and now it won’t be enough to merely supplant Stewart as top dog, there is a debt that must be repaid in full and in kind. So it is that Campbell hires a crew of gunmen led by Scavo (Leo Gordon) with the aim of drawing his rivals into a shooting war.

So, did Ten Wanted Men fare better this time round? Well, yes and no. It is not some misunderstood and unfairly maligned gem. However, it’s not an irredeemable dud either. Director Bruce Humberstone is not someone with extensive experience of the western, I mainly think of him as the man in charge of a handful of entertaining Charlie Chan features as well as the proto-noir I Wake Up Screaming. That said, his handling of this movie is fine, if not especially remarkable. The Old Tucson locations are attractively shot by Wilfrid Cline, who has the frequently used interiors looking good too, while the essentially minimalist score by Paul Sawtell has a moody and vaguely melancholy quality to it that I found appealing. These are all more or less pluses with the sharp pace and abundance of incident contributing a little more weight to that side of the scales.

Nevertheless, it’s not a wholly satisfying experience, certainly not in the way the level of talent involved might encourage one to believe. I think it stems from the writing, or aspects of it at any rate. The script is by Kenneth Gamet from a story by Harriet Frank and Irving Ravetch. Gamet had scripted a number good westerns, many featuring Randolph Scott – A Lawless Street, Coroner Creek, Man in the Saddle, The Doolins of Oklahoma to name just a few. Harriet Frank had a compact but extraordinarily strong list of credits. She was a writer on the underrated Silver River, provided the story for Nicholas Ray’s Run for Cover, would go on adapt two Martin Ritt/Paul Newman pictures in Hud and Hombre (the latter offering a memorable role for Richard Boone) from novels by Larry McMurtry and Elmore Leonard respectively, and scripted a Vincente Minnelli film I’m particularly fond of in Home from the Hill. As such, we are not talking about writers with a poor track record here. And yet some things don’t quite gel.

There is not much to fault in the performance of Randolph Scott, and in fairness there rarely was in his work throughout the 1950s, but the character itself is a  little lacking. He starts out with that characteristic gallantry firmly to the fore and then later lets the harder core become more apparent as circumstances conspire to try him. However, there’s a flatness to the arc this character describes, as though the experiences he has do not appear to shape him and there is no sense that I can detect of his having learned anything  about himself by the time the credits roll. Then there is Boone, a brooding and truculent presence early on, he grows more tightly coiled and repressed as he relentlessly applies pressure to his enemies. It’s only near the end though that another dimension makes an appearance, when his desperation and frustration strip away restraint as he confronts Martell and confesses the full extent of his infatuation. This is one of the better and more intense moments yet it comes too late in proceedings. Of course Scott and his producing partner Harry Joe Brown clearly saw enough in what Boone put on screen to hire him for the pivotal role of Frank Usher in The Tall T.

Skip Homeier must have made an impression too as he would also get cast in both The Tall T and the later Comanche Station. Jocelyn Brando has the biggest female role in the picture but her romance with Scott has little spark about it and it’s largely superfluous. In a crowded field of talented supporting players Leo Gordon is as malevolent as ever and one could hardly ask for a finer chief henchman. Lee Van Cleef makes the most of a showy bit part and Denver Pyle exits relatively early, but not before his slyly provocative troublemaker brings matters to a head. Finally, mentions ought to be made for the likes of Kathleen Crowley, Dennis Weaver, Tom Powers and Alfonso Bedoya.

Ten Wanted Men came out on DVD from Sony years ago, looking sharp and colorful in an open-matte presentation. If it has subsequently appeared anywhere in high definition, I don’t recall hearing about it. To the best of my knowledge, I’ve never heard anything especially positive about this movie and I can’t say it enthused me much when I first saw it. Returning to it now after the passage of a good many years, I still wouldn’t go so far as to say it deserves reassessment. Nevertheless, it’s far from an objectively bad piece of work. Certain aspects of the writing and characterization lack the fire it needs to raise it yet there are points of interest and enjoyment to be found as there are in almost all of Scott’s westerns. All told, I can’t say I regretted revisiting this title.

Lightning Strikes Twice

Melodrama is essentially just emotionally supercharged drama. Somehow it has garnered if not a bad reputation over the years then at the very least one which attracts a degree of critical sneering. Its defining characteristics, those heated and indeed often overheated passions and emotions, seem to embarrass a lot of cultural commentators, leaving them unable to assess the strengths and the draw of melodrama with any sense of proportion, something that rarely occurs with other genres. Would it not be odd to kick a western for featuring gunfights, a horror movie for including monsters, or a comedy for having the effrontery to raise a laugh? Yet there is no shortage of critics jostling for a prime place in the line formed up to sling brickbats at melodrama. As a result, few people want to associate their names or their company’s names with melodrama, preferring to slap another label on the product, one which is perceived as having more marketing clout and thus greater respectability. Lightning Strikes Twice (1951) is without doubt a melodrama, with all the heightened atmosphere and feeling that one would expect. However, I have seen it labeled film noir, which is both a disservice to the movie itself and a misleading descriptor for potential viewers.

The opening scene leads us to Death Row where a man, pacing his cell like some caged beast, awaits the hour of his execution after having been convicted of the murder of his wife. Then right at the last moment, following an oddly flipped situation which sees a priest seeking forgiveness from the condemned man, word comes through that a stay of execution has been granted in order to permit a retrial. It is soon learned that the new trial has ended with a jury split right down the middle and unable to reach a verdict. So Richard Trevelyan (Richard Todd) walks free, and promptly drops out of sight. It is here that the main point of view character is introduced: Shelley Carnes (Ruth Roman) is an actress on sabbatical for health reasons and riding a bus through Texas on her way to a dude ranch. By chance and coincidence, for no melodrama would be worth its name without a liberal sprinkling of both mechanisms, she runs into a middle-aged couple who are keen to extend help and hospitality, for reasons which will be revealed later. The upshot is Shelley winds up on a remote desert road in the middle of a huge downpour and is forced to seek temporary refuge in the first house she spies. The one person in residence, and he has only just arrived, is Trevelyan. As he tells his tale to Shelley, she is not unsympathetic. The story is incomplete though and the viewer, as well as the characters on the screen, is left unsure of exactly what happened.

So is this a film noir? Well no it’s not, and the fact is that, despite some gloriously inky cinematography by Sid Hickox, the script is not so much dark as muddy. It plunges the viewer into a dizzyingly complex set of interlocking, interlinking and interdependent relationships where jealousy, infidelity, despair and yearning all jockey for position. The screenplay by Lenore J Coffee packs in as much emotional tumult and turbulence as possible and the stark, broiling desert setting is a fitting location for it all. The ghost of Trevelyan’s late wife is ever present, haunting both the past and present of everybody involved. As in Hitchcock’s Rebecca, our never seeing this character lends her a power in death that is every bit as malignant as her influence in life is said to have been.

Perhaps there is a bit too much doubt or ambiguity injected into proceedings. The truth is that once one strips away the admittedly well rendered atmospherics the mystery at the heart of the film is not that hard to crack. Still,the direction of King Vidor (Duel in the Sun, Man Without a Star, Ruby Gentry) is a visual delight, exhibiting great style and creativity. He frequently captures characters either in reflection or in frames within frames. The effect here is that the full picture is never allowed to emerge, with something always obscured or placed strategically out of sight. This serves to heighten the sense of unease and suspicion, leaving viewers and characters unsure and feeling forever at a loss.

Both Richard Todd  and Ruth Roman were riding high at this point and getting some plum roles. Todd had just recently received great acclaim for The Hasty Heart and had taken the lead in Hitchcock’s Stage Fright. His career saw him take on a variety of square-jawed heroic parts but he was equally effective in more ambivalent roles too. Coincidentally, Ruth Roman was working with Hitchcock around this time as well, as the leading lady in the superlative Strangers on a Train. I’ve always felt she had an air of toughness about her, and while that quality is discernible here she never allows it to override the innate vulnerability which is essential for her role to make sense. If the careers of Todd and Roman were in the ascendancy, then the same cannot be said for Zachary Scott. His star was on the wane and this would be the  last movie he made at Warner Brothers. His part reflects this decline too, a supporting role at best which sees him only appear in the latter half of proceedings and with just one notable scene – an edgy nighttime drive across the desert with Roman. Mercedes McCambridge gives another masterclass in twitchy, quivering frustration as the owner of the dude ranch  – surely no other actress has been as accomplished at portraying dissatisfied, self-loathing types.

Lightning Strikes Twice is available on DVD via the Warner Archive and the transfer looks quite strong. Personally, I like this movie – the stars, director, genre and overall look and vibe appeal to me. However, I realize this type of thing is not going to work for everybody. Again, I feel it is a real stretch to call this a film noir and anyone approaching it on those terms is likely to come away feeling disappointed and short-changed. Sure it has the look of noir at times and one could say it does pause to light up a smoke and cast a glance down those murky cinematic alleys on occasion but it is melodrama all the way, and an enjoyable example of that genre for those who are happy to embrace it.

Drums Across the River

Revisiting Universal-International westerns is never a chore. While some are undoubtedly more challenging and engaging than others, there is a strong and distinctive visual aesthetic to them all. Add in the polish and pace of a well-oiled production system and there is usually much to savor. Drums Across the River (1954) was the last of three movies Audie Murphy made for director Nathan Juran and it is an enjoyable picture that blends a number of worthwhile themes into the action, although one could argue that there are too many of those themes for a sub-80 minute movie, too many to do full justice to at any rate.

Gary Brannon (Audie Murphy) and his father Sam (Walter Brennan) run a freight business in Colorado, one which is beginning to feel the pinch economically as the mines that had previously been the life blood of Crown City are yielding less and less. Desperate men naturally snatch at whatever straws of hope appear before them and in this case it is the neighboring land occupied by the Ute tribe, land which is known to be rich in gold reserves. This presents the main source of potential conflict in the movie and it is here that we dive into the action as Gary Brannon is about to defy his father and take part in an excursion onto Ute territory organized by Frank Walker (Lyle Bettger). Walker fully expects to encounter trouble, in fact he welcomes and pushes for it as his ultimate goal is to provoke a war with the Utes that will force the army to intervene and deliver the gold into his hands. Well, a skirmish does occur, despite the best efforts of Brannon Sr to broker peace, and the taking of captives by both sides means an exchange is going to have to take place.

It is at this point that another source of conflict arises, one that is crammed with potential. Sadly, this is only partially fulfilled though, as the fact that Gary’s mother was killed by a Ute warrior in the past comes to light. This explains his hatred for the Indians and introduces a needling note between father and son since the older man has come to terms with his loss and grown to respect the tribe and the Chief (Morris Ankrum) who atoned for the killing at great personal expense. The exchange, negotiated by Gary as his father is nursing a wound, sees him alter his perspective and thus the ethical and philosophical sea-change he experiences is effected a little too quickly and too soon. That is not to say it is unconvincing, merely that it robs the picture of the opportunity to delve deeper into a strong and involving theme. What follows is more standard albeit entertaining fare as the focus shifts to a more direct confrontation between Walker and Brannon Jr, where the former is increasingly determined to remove the stone in his shoe that the latter now represents. As such, we get kidnapping, blackmail and a frame-up all interspersed with copious action sequences as we wind our way towards a satisfying if not altogether unexpected conclusion.

Westerns that lean heavily on subterfuge as plot devices need the right people in the villainous roles. Under the circumstances, it is hard to think of anyone better suited to the part of arch puppeteer than the unctuous and Machiavellian Lyle Bettger. His shifty, slippery persona is ideal for the role of Walker and contrasts well with Murphy’s clear countenance and upright demeanor. Murphy himself is never overtaxed but does well, as one would expect, in the action scenes and brings that edgy intensity of his to some of the tougher moments. Walter Brennan is sympathetic as the older man who has made peace with himself and his environment. If anything, he is absent, or held captive by Bettger and his henchmen, for too long and his character’s measured wisdom and innate decency is therefore only sporadically highlighted. And speaking of characters who are not on screen as much as I would like, there is Hugh O’Brian’s sardonic and sadistic black-clad gunslinger. He brings a real sense of stylish menace to his scenes and it is a genuine pity he wasn’t given more to do. Jay Silverheels fares well as the Ute warrior who grows into responsible leadership and his stoic sense of right and justice contrasts markedly with the venality of the villains.

It has been suggested before that women in westerns do not always get as many opportunities to shine or make their mark. Now I’m not convinced that is really true, or least not true enough to be presented as a blanket statement. There are many examples of interesting and pivotal roles for women in the films of Ford, Hawks, Daves, Mann and Boetticher, and this is frequently true of second tier productions as well. Sadly though, this cannot be said for Drums Across the River, where neither Mara Corday as a saloon girl nor Lisa Gaye as the insipid and unnecessary love interest for Murphy are given any chance by the script.

Nathan Juran’s direction of the movie is fine in that he keeps it tight and it’s what I’d term a solid and professional piece of work. Still, it feels a little impersonal. He makes ample use of the studio backlot, which typically looked attractive in most of the movies where it was employed and this is certainly true of the sequence featuring the gallows in the rain, but does get to head out to Red Rock Canyon and San Bernardino for a bit of welcome location work too.

Drums Across the River has had multiple releases on DVD over the years so it ought to be easy enough to track down a copy. I watched the UK release by Simply Media, which has the film looking handsome and colorful in its correct widescreen ratio. Overall, this is a good Audie Murphy western that offers food for thought on Indian-settler relations and presents the Ute as more than just convenient bogeymen. I guess my only complaint would be the fact that the script moves so fast and tries to pack in so much that some the more interesting and worthwhile themes do not have much chance to breathe. Nevertheless, this is a movie that works hard to please and hits the target most of the time.

Murder Without Crime

Looking at the beginning of a filmmaker’s career can be an eye-opener, either for good or bad reasons. Some directors start out with only a shadow of the confidence and assurance they would later develop, resulting in debut efforts that are clearly the work of a novice. Others hit the ground running, creating the illusion that they had been in this line of work forever. Murder Without Crime (1950) was the first feature directed by J Lee Thompson, a man whose subsequent career would be a lengthy and varied one. The movie has a great deal going for it in terms of both pacing and visuals, although there are other aspects of it which are more problematic. All told though it suggested that the man in the director’s chair had a promising future ahead of him.

Murder Without Crime is a self-contained affair following the fortunes of just four Londoners over the course of one evening. Stephen (Derek Farr) is, according to the narrator, an author of moderate success. He is married to Jan (Patricia Plunkett), but it does not appear to be a happy union. Jan suspects infidelity and Stephen doesn’t have the demeanor of an  entirely trustworthy man. They row, tempers become frayed, accusations and threats get tossed around, and Jan storms out vowing never to return. What then is a churlish and vaguely immature man supposed to do under the circumstances? Why, allow his smug and supercilious landlord Matthew (Dennis Price) to take him out on the town to drown his sorrows in a Soho night club. That then is the location where the fourth piece of the ensuing puzzle makes her appearance; Grena (Joan Dowling) is a hostess in the club and the lovelorn Stephen catches her attention. To cut to the chase, Stephen and Grena eventually end up back at his place, where he veers disconcertingly between maudlin and passionate while she is simply kittenish. Things take a nasty turn though with Grena feeling rejected and insulted before it escalates into a tussle over an antique dagger that sees Stephen shove her, causing her to fall and strike her head.

Such a turn of events would be enough to panic even the most levelheaded and self-assured individual, neither of which characteristic could be used to describe Stephen. His first thought is to conceal the deed, but he is not taking account of the suspicious and predatory nature of the ever vigilant Matthew in the flat below. The opportunity now exists to apply some pressure on the hapless Stephen, with Matthew sadistically teasing and tormenting him with allusions to his  guilt, toying with him pitilessly before blackmailing him.

J Lee Thompson had started out as a writer and one of his earliest plays went by the name of Double Error. It seems to have enjoyed some success, being performed in the West End as well as later revivals in the US. In 1950 Thompson had the chance to make his first movie and Double Error was adapted for the screen as Murder Without Crime. The stage origins are apparent in the small cast and limited locations but the cinema version has some very striking visual flourishes, with sharply canted angles and moody noir style cinematography helping to build up atmosphere and suggest a world where the mentality of the people we follow is as skewed and quirky as the imagery on the screen.

Everything moves along at a comfortable pace, scenes never drag and it all wraps up in a way that is brisk without being rushed. However, there are some weaknesses that shouldn’t be glossed over. Firstly, there is a voice-over that adds little to the proceedings and comes off as smug and smarmy where I suspect it was actually aiming for knowing sophistication. Then the score by Philip Green is one of those intrusive efforts, making its presence felt far too strongly and drawing attention to itself far too often – I have always felt a score ought to complement the visuals, enhance the mood rather than stomp all over it. Finally, there are the characters who people this drama. I don’t reckon it is necessary for audiences to be able to identify with the characters they watch but there should be someone they can at least sympathize with. The problem with Murder Without Crime is that nobody is actually all that likeable.

Dennis Price was a fixture of many British movies throughout the 1940s and 1950s, excelling at playing men at once remote and bilious. Kind Hearts and Coronets may well be his best work but there are numerous examples of delicious unpleasantness in his list of credits. As Matthew he is seedy, louche and superior, and downright mean-spirited. Up against Price is Derek Farr, in a role that really needs to have some feature we the viewers can root for. What we get, however, is a portrait of a weak and truculent type, a man who is struggling to save up to make a down payment on a chin. While Stephen surely feels sorry for himself and worries a lot about how everything will pan out, I was of the opinion that any misfortune he suffered was richly deserved.

The women fare only marginally better. Patricia Plunkett rightly walks out on Stephen at the beginning, but her resolve weakens far too quickly. When she returns it is hard to see how she is justified in helping out this man who is clearly unworthy of her. That she continues to do so even after she learns how he behaved had me scratching my head. The tragic Joan Dowling does some good work as the clinging hostess but, once again, it is difficult to like her. The fact is all four of these actors turn in good performances, but the the characters they play are for the most part distasteful.

Murder Without Crime is a modest picture, telling a simple yet twisty story economically. Network released the movie on DVD almost a decade ago and it looks like it has now gone out of print, although used copies can still be picked up at reasonable prices. That old DVD was quite strong and boasted the kind of transfer that did justice to the visuals. It is a tight little crime story from a director who was just starting out and even if it has some weaknesses (which I hope I haven’t overstated here), it still makes for an enjoyable way to spend eighty minutes of your time.