Rogue Cop

Patterns, connections, trends and interdependence. These are things which draw my attention in general, and in cinema in particular. I’d like to think that visitors to this site have noticed this from time to time, and I’d be even more pleased if I’d managed to pique the interest of some by following up on certain threads that suggest themselves to me. Redemption is the one theme that I guess stands out from the crowd of other ideas, and it’s certainly the driving force behind Rogue Cop (1954), which I want to focus on today. I’d also like to touch on what I feel is a defining feature running thorough 1950s cinema as a whole and maybe then cast an eye over the shape and texture of noir at that time. So yes, it ought to be clear enough that I’m setting myself  a nice uncomplicated and unambitious task with this one…

Rogue Cop opens in an understated and matter-of-fact manner, with the credits running over a series of background images of cops going about their daily business in the city, making and taking calls, driving squad cars and all seguing into a nighttime scene where the sirens scream and the neon flickers. Throughout this it remains everyday, mundane and routine, even as a showgirl drifts out of the theater where she’s been working and makes her way to a penny arcade. Even there the drug deal she’s intent on completing is nothing out of the ordinary, nor indeed is the casual filleting of her pusher by a competitor. So there you have it, life and death played out as just another unremarkable event in an overlit and gaudy locale – the whole process as cheap and throwaway as the scene of the crime itself.

Yet, in plot terms, this is more than just another statistic to write up in the records. Chance, that old staple of any self-respecting film noir, steps in and sees to it that the killer who is coolly departing should bump into a young patrolman. This man on the beat is Eddie Kelvaney (Steve Forrest) and while he doesn’t make a pinch he does get a good enough look at the knife man to be able to make an identification. Had he not been there at that moment, or had another less ethical man been pounding that particular pavement, the tale would have meandered off in a different direction.  But he was there and the fates would also have it that his older brother Chris (Robert Taylor) is a detective with a lot of shady contacts, with the healthy bank balance and unhealthy reputation that brings. Pressure will be brought to bear on Chris to ensure Eddie toes the line and forgets who he saw and where he saw him. Were it only about Chris himself, this would not be a problem; however, Eddie is an idealist and a man who holds firm to the principles of decency his late father lived by, and which his brother professes to regard with contempt. What follows is that age old contest, the battle for the soul of a man with temptation taking place in an urban wasteland with winking lights as opposed to the deserts of antiquity.

Rogue Cop was adapted from a novel by William P McGivern, the man who provided the source material for Fritz Lang’s punishing examination of corruption and abusive relationships The Big Heat. Similar to Lang’s movie the noir quotient of this production stems as much, and probably more, from the theme as it does from the visuals. While John Seitz shoots the whole thing beautifully and earned himself an Oscar nomination for cinematography, it’s not got that painted shadows look that the term film noir so often conjures up. It’s got a brighter appearance in general and director Roy Rowland aims for the kind of pared down and uncluttered visual simplicity that Lang had been working on.

Is it possible then that the look here was a reflection of the thematic shift taking place within film noir itself? Noir in the 1940s felt as though it concerned itself primarily with disenchantment and compromised morality on a personal, and thus more intimate, level. Moving into the next decade saw a cleaner and simpler aesthetic gain prominence, which might suggest that thematically it was drifting towards a more sharply defined ethical conundrum. The focus was increasingly on decay in institutional terms, and the ethical deficiencies in broader society. A good deal of the action is situated in flash night clubs and swish apartments, well-lit and with the type of surface gloss that is deceptive – a store-bought glamor that seeks to blind us to the real cheapness, the shabby abuse and exploitation lurking behind it all.

There are those who will tell you a film noir has to have a femme fatale. Personally, I feel she is a common or typical feature but not an essential one, although I do think a strong and pivotal female role in general is vital. Rogue Cop offers two such parts – Janet Leigh’s jaded entertainer desperate to escape the sins of the past and, giving a terrific performance, Anne Francis’ boozy moll who suffers grievously for a moment’s tactlessness. These two are key to the development of the plot and in determining the path Taylor’s dirty cop will follow.

Taylor is, right from the beginning, a man trying to save himself, a man hungry for redemption, even if he doesn’t realize it till later. The fact remains though that the itch is there, the mask of cynicism barely disguising the intensity of his concern over his brother’s welfare. He’s only a short step away from acknowledging his desire to find a way out – and that tipping point is achieved first by the fate of his brother, later intensified by the treatment of Francis, and finally confirmed by the constancy of Leigh. It’s this spiritual quest that lends weight to the whole movie and lifts it above a mere run-of-the-mill critique of corruption. All of which had me wondering why exactly this theme of redemption is to be seen all through 1950s cinema. I’ve often written about it here in relation to the western, where it found perhaps its truest expression, but it transcended genre and is almost ubiquitous. Was it a reaction, albeit a delayed one,  to the war years? And did it climax at or around the end of the decade? My feeling is that it had – with the closing of the classic noir cycle and the gradual winding down of the golden age of westerns. Still, this is just a feeling on my part and others may be able to offer a more definitive answer.

Of course Rogue Cop, being released in 1954, wasn’t coming at the end of any cycle. In fact, it signaled a return for at least one person to bigger pictures than had been the case for a while. That person was George Raft, one of the early stars of the gangster movie whose star slowly faded through the 1940s. I’ve heard it said – although I’d be happy to be corrected on this if anybody knows different – that Raft at the height of his fame was very choosy about his roles and became very cautious about the image he was projecting on screen. Essentially, he was said to be turning down anything that involved a persona which was less than squeaky clean, something which always struck me as a singularly petty and counterproductive approach. As the chief villain here, Raft is very good indeed, full of malice and vindictiveness. Watching him get this across so successfully had me thinking about the secret of getting under the skin of a villain, of making or becoming a bad man on screen. That demands both self-confidence and humility, it requires that an actor be big enough in his soul to be comfortable playing someone genuinely small and mean of spirit. In short, it needs courage.

Unfortunately, Rogue Cop remains on the missing list as far as official releases on disc are concerned. It is easy enough to watch online in passable condition but it deserves to be available commercially. Whatever is holding that up, it’s not the quality of the movie itself. This is a superb 50s film noir with first rate performances all round from an excellent cast, and a solid script which offers plenty of food for thought while simultaneously raising a number of interesting questions.

Hannah Lee

Today, we have another guest post from the pen of regular contributor Gordon Gates. This occasion sees him casting an eye over a rare and little seen western from the 1950s.
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Hannah Lee : An American Primitive (color) AKA Outlaw Territory (b/w) 1953
   Most actors at one time or another decide they should take a shot at producing. This could be because they wanted more creative control or a bigger piece of the pie, or both.
In 1953, actor John Ireland, his wife Joanne Dru and cinematographer Lee Garmes  combined to give production a shot. The one time Oscar nominated Ireland and the four time nominated, one time Oscar winner, Garmes, decided on a western.
A screenplay by Mackinlay Kantor was chosen. Kantor is known to film fans for The Best Years of Our Lives and Gun Crazy. The screenplay here is based on Kantor’s own novel, “Wicked Water”. This is based on the real life story of “regulator” Tom Horn. The team also decided to give the new gimmick of the time, 3-D a go in hopes of increasing box office.
Veteran cinematographer Garmes would handle the direction duties with Ireland shooting the odd scene.
The film stars, John Ireland, Joanne Dru, MacDonald Carey, Tom Powers, Frank Ferguson, Don Haggerty and Peter Ireland.
The story starts out in the town of Pearl City, Colorado at the end of the 1890’s. Gun for hire MacDonald Carey hits town looking for work. As it so happens, a group of local big ranch owners are in need of someone like him. They are having problems with squatters and rustlers taking their land and cattle.

Carey is offered a job as a “regulator” with 600 dollars a body pay. He is supplied with a list of names to be “regulated”. He is told that he must give the people named a chance to leave on their own. Carey leaves notes with the men telling them to clear out of the area. None do, and all soon end up with large alterations to their breathing arrangements.

Carey, a slightly nuts in the head type, uses a sniping rifle he used during the Spanish-American War in Cuba. Carey also takes a fancy to the local saloon keeper, Joanne Dru. Dru finds herself drawn to the hard man.

As the body count rises, some of the local people put out a call for a Federal Marshall. The town Sheriff, Tom Powers, does not seem all that interested in investigating.

Marshall John Ireland arrives in Pearl City to have a look into the killings. He digs around and figures that Carey is the main suspect. The killings started just after he arrived, and he is now flashing a large roll of cash. The cattlemen however want Carey to keep up his thinning of squatters etc. The cattlemen send another gunman, Don Haggerty to dispose of Ireland. Ireland though ends up filling Haggerty with lead instead.Now we find out that Ireland and Miss Dru know each other from years before. Ireland had sent Dru’s brother to prison for a long spell. Dru was sure that her brother was innocent. Ireland asks Dru to tell him all she might know about the latest shootings. Dru refuses to name Carey.

Of course the viewer knows there is going to be some more violence, with exchanges of lead, fists  and a steady supply of bodies ready for Boot Hill.

This is a stark, brutal western that is quite well done considering the obvious limited budget.
Cinematographer Garmes was known for lensing films like, The Jungle Book, Scarface, Detective Story, Angels Over Broadway, Nightmare Alley, Man With the Gun and The Desperate Hours.
Guns, fists, bottles, burning furniture and Miss Dru’s upper works are just a few of the items thrust at the viewer because of the original 3-D format. Ireland and Dru were marries at the time. Peter Ireland was John’s son from a previous marriage.
There are less than perfect prints up on YouTube. There is, I think, a better one on OK.RU
Gordon Gates

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!

Flaming Feather

Having taken a break from writing about the genre for a bit, I think it’s time to return to the movies that have formed the bedrock of this site since its earliest days – westerns. Instead of getting into a thematically rich example, I’m going to look at a brisk, no-nonsense entertainment. Flaming Feather (1952) is exactly that; pacy, plot-driven and directed by perennial journeyman Ray Enright, the movie tells an enjoyable and undemanding story in an hour and a quarter, makes the most of its attractive locations and allows its accomplished cast to smoothly occupy the types of roles they were ideally suited to.

Arizona in the post-Civil War era and, as ever, there is a threat to the creeping influence of civilization. Sometimes the movies will focus on the menace of outlaw gangs, ruthless gunslingers, business rivals, or indigenous resistance. On this occasion, it’s something of a hybrid: a band of murderous and relentless Ute renegades who appear to be organized and led by a faceless white man, a man who is known only by the alias of the Sidewinder. Of course any villain, not least one who assumes the identity of a serpent, should sooner or later come face to face with his or her personal nemesis. The core concept that has been at the heart of all drama, from classical tragedy right down to popcorn fare such as Flaming Feather, is that one can only spend so long poking a finger in the eye of fate before some form of retribution descends. And so it is here that the Sidewinder pushes his luck once too often. By raiding and plundering the ranch of Tex McCloud (Sterling Hayden), he sets in motion a chain of events that will lead inexorably to his downfall. The hero in this case has the kind of implacable resolve that it’s best not to gamble against, and backing up his natural thirst for a reckoning is the small matter of a wager he has laid with a cavalry lieutenant (Forrest Tucker) regarding who is going to track down the perpetrator first. So we have a fairly straightforward setup, one which will be further complicated (though never unduly so) by the intervention of two women, Arleen Whelan & Barbara Rush, as it heads towards a memorable conclusion amid the ruins of Montezuma Castle.

Ray Enright was nearing the end of a long career by the time he took charge of Flaming Feather. He only had one more feature ahead of him (a routine George Raft effort) and came to this off the back of a run of solid and enjoyable movies with Randolph Scott, Joel McCrea and Audie Murphy, as well as the extremely disappointing Montana with Errol Flynn. Enright is never going to make anyone’s list of great directors, but he was a competent studio professional and, given the right script, cast and crew, was more than capable of producing a good quality piece of work. This movie saw him shooting a tight and trim script penned by Gerald Drayson Adams, taking advantage of the dramatic Arizona locations, and enjoying the contribution of top cinematographer Ray Rennahan. The tone throughout is consistent – straight drama with a light sprinkling of well-judged humor – and the big action set pieces in the third act are nicely handled.

One day I may well devote a post to distinctive voices and styles of delivery in the movies. I could turn out copy on Dan Duryea’s wheedling, Orson Welles’ cajoling, Burt Lancaster’s pitter-patter, and perhaps Sterling Hayden’s confrontational abruptness. The latter carries an air of authority, it doesn’t leave a great deal of room for maneuver or subtlety but it certainly evokes the straight-shooting hero who favors the direct approach. And this is exactly the type of performance Hayden delivers; there’s no shading or nuance here, just a portrait of a wronged man on a quest for justice, which is perfectly fine under the circumstances. Any consideration of instantly recognizable voices would have to include Victor Jory, a man whose characteristic tones typically put me in mind of someone trying to sell a used bottle of snake oil, and possessed of a face which seems always to have been a stranger to sincerity. He was born to play villains and I don’t imagine it’s going to constitute a spoiler of any consequence to say that this is the role he fulfills once again.

There are some actors who, when their names appear among the credits, give viewers a reassuring feeling, a comforting knowledge that, whatever else may be lacking, they can be depended on to turn in a strong performance. Forrest Tucker was such a figure; he was entirely at home in westerns and he brought an authenticity to the screen. If I have any complaint here, it’s that he’s missing from the action for far too long in the mid-section. Of the two female roles, Arleen Whelan gets the showier part as the duplicitous saloon girl and runs with it. Barbara Rush is given a simpler and more one-dimensional character, but bigger and better things were just around the corner for her, starting with Jack Arnold’s It Came from Outer Space and then a a number of fine movies for Douglas Sirk and Nicholas Ray. In support, we get Edgar Buchanan, Richard Arlen and a small but welcome part for Ray Teal.

Flaming Feather was made for Nat Holt Productions via Paramount. There are a few DVD releases of the film in European countries – Italy and Germany for sure, although there may be others. I have the German disc and it’s what I might term OK. The image is clear enough but it’s obviously using an older master and there is that softness and lack of “zip” associated with such sources. I’d like to see it scrubbed up and looking fresher but I imagine I might be in a for a long wait. As movies go, this isn’t going to change anyone’s world, alter one’s perceptions of the genre or stimulate any intellectual debate. What it will do, however, is provide a pleasant evening’s entertainment. I liked it.

Undercover Girl

A slight departure today, but one which I’m sure most who read and follow here will appreciate. In short, I’m honored to be able to host a guest post from Gordon Gates, a man who has contributed to many a discussion here over the years and who brings along a wealth of knowledge on genre pictures and television shows. He very kindly offered to do a guest write-up, and also floated the possibility of others in the future. I’m delighted to be able to offer Gord this space to highlight a movie of his choice, and I’ve no doubt other readers here will share those sentiments.
I would like to thank Colin for the chance to do a guest review. I am by no means an expert on film but I know what I like. Film Noir, westerns, war films, Sci-Fi and early television are at the top of the list for me. Up first, I’m going to dive into film noir. Undercover Girl  (1950) is a Universal-International B film that stars Scott Brady, Alexis Smith, Royal Dano, Gerald Mohr, Gladys George, Angela Clarke and Richard Egan. This was the second feature helmed by actor turned director, Joseph Pevney. The story was supplied by Harry Essex whose work includes, Desperate, The Killer That Stalked New York, The Fat Man, Bodyguard, I, The Jury and Kansas City Confidential.

This one starts out in Los Angeles where a Police informant is badly wounded in a vicious knife attack. Before he bites it, the informant tells his Police Detective contact, Scott Brady, there is a large shipment of drugs coming to town. The shipment is arriving from New York. He also manages to whisper there is a crooked New York cop involved.As this is going on in LA, back on the east coast, Police Detective Regis Toomey, the crooked cop, has had a change of heart. Toomey has a meeting with mobster, Gerald Mohr about the 10 large he took to look the other way. He tosses the cash back at Mohr and tells him he is taking him in. This does not go well for Toomey. A henchman of Mohr puts the kibosh on Toomey..

Now we meet Alexis Smith, Smith is a trainee with the NYPD following in her father’s footsteps. She takes Toomey’s murder hard and redoubles her efforts to make the force.

LA cop Brady is soon in New York to see if he can uncover anything about the drug shipment. Smith does not believe Brady that her father might have been a bent copper. She offers to help out Brady. Brady takes her up on the offer. He will send her in as an undercover type back in LA.

It is back to LA to fill in Smith on her new identity etc. They hook Smith up with an old time gangster’s moll, Gladys George. George is pumped by Smith for every bit of info she can get. This will help establish Smith’s criminal “bona fides” for her new identity. She is to play a buyer for a drug ring in Chicago.

Several weeks of studying are needed before Smith can be inserted into the local criminal crowd. Smith is put up in a downtown rooming house next door to Angela Clarke. Clarke is the former dolly of low level underworld type, Royal Dano. Clarke is a drunk always looking for a bottle. A few words in her ear from Smith, and a promise of some cash, soon does the trick.  Clarke agrees to put Smith in touch with Dano.
Dano shows up at Clarke’s apartment in a less than happy state. He is not amused that Clarke has set up the meeting with an out of town type. Clarke gets slapped around, then, shoved out the 3rd floor window. Dano beats the feet out the door and right into Miss Smith. She points to a back way out of the building.

Smith fills in Brady on the night’s events. Brady thinks the case is now far too dangerous to continue, but Smith still wants revenge for her father’s murder. She tracks down Dano and convinces him to introduce her to someone higher up the drug food chain. A promise of 1000 bucks quickly has Dano on side.

Miss Smith is soon shown into the office of a doctor. The man, Edom Ryan, has a sideline selling heroin. Ryan actually works for the same mobster, Mohr, who killed Toomey in New York. Keeping an eye on Doc Ryan is, “mad as a hatter” gunsel, Harry Landers. Also on Mohr’s payroll is Lynn Ainley.

Before Ryan agrees to any transaction, he needs to check out Smith’s identification etc. Smith knows all the proper answers to the right questions, and is bumped up the line. She meets the boss, Mohr. A deal is quickly arranged for a substantial amount of product for an equally substantial pile of cash.

Now of course the flies start to roost in the ointment. Miss Smith runs into her former beau from New York, Richard Egan. He blows her cover in front of Dano. Dano, an enterprising bottom feeder if ever there was one, decides to blackmail Policewoman Smith. Five large or he turns her over to Mohr. He gives a time and place to Smith for the exchange.

This lays out all the ground work for the film. Needless to say several double crosses, some flying fists, a barrage of bullets and a stack of bodies are needed to bring the tale to a proper end.

This is another of those Universal-International films that is rather difficult to lay one’s hands on. But it is well worth the time if it can be found.

Scott Brady was the younger brother of noir favorite Lawrence Tierney. Look close early and you can spot the third Tierney brother, Edward, in a small unbilled bit.

The cast is all quite good here, with the always entertaining Royal Dano in particular shining as the low-life grifter. This was director Pevney’s second foray into noir territory after the equally entertaining, Shakedown. He hits the mark all the way through. Pevney directed in several genres during the 1950′ s before making the move to television. Two of more well know TV episodes were from Star Trek. These were, Amok Time and The Trouble With Tribbles. Pevney’s film work includes: Desert Legion, Iron Man, Back to God’s Country, Yankee Pasha, Away All Boats and The Plunderers.

As for myself, I’m from Western Canada. Right now I’m based in Calgary Alberta though I have lived in British Columbia and the Yukon. Quite a few films have been make around here as we are only 60 miles from the Rocky Mountains. Eastwood’s Unforgiven, Costner’s Open Range are just a couple of the westerns made here.

Gordon Gates

Tiger by the Tail

The last time I posted here I spoke about voiceover narration in movies and expressed some doubts about its efficacy. Now that was largely prompted by my experiencing what I felt was a fairly redundant example of the technique. That said, the fact is that this narrative device does serve a purpose and, as others have pointed out, is frequently an attractive feature in various films noir. Generally, I’d go along with that – although it has to be said that a recent viewing of Richard Fleischer’s Trapped had me drumming my fingers at what seemed like an interminable lecture at the beginning. And this, in my own meandering way, brings me to Tiger by the Tail (1955), a British film noir which I reckon uses its narration in the most effective way, that is as a means of conveying the thoughts, fears and regrets of the lead.

The opening is suitably evocative – nighttime, a sparse urban setting and a lone figure stumbling along a pavement before collapsing. As a patrol car pulls up and a policeman goes to attend to the fallen man the credits roll. Thereafter the story unfolds in flashback, with intermittent narration provided by the protagonist. He is John Desmond (Larry Parks), an American journalist somewhat reluctantly handed the assignment of taking over the London office of his organization. He’d been expecting the Paris job and the last minute decision to switch him to Britain hasn’t done much for his mood. The combination of post-war austerity and the less than enchanting weather is picking at him and a decision to go out for a drink alone proves to  be a fateful one. This is what brings him into contact with Anna Ray (Lisa Daniely), and he embarks on a relationship that will see him embroiled in a killing and left to the mercy of a group of ruthless counterfeiters. His only way out is to try to unravel the meaning of a cipher in a notebook, and thus hopefully bring down the gangsters. As is often the case in the world of film noir, Desmond has first to be led up the garden path by a femme fatale in the shape of Ms Ray before being bailed out by a loyal Girl Friday figure – in this case Jane Claymore (Constance Smith), the secretary who proves herself considerably more resourceful than her ill-fated boss.

As films noir go, the plot here is pretty standard fare. There’s a protagonist who’s not exactly a chump but nor is he any brighter than he needs to be. The villains are twisty and mean, and the women, both good and bad, are arguably sharper than anyone. The script adapts a John Mair novel and comes via Willis Goldbeck. Generally a writer and occasional director (I keep meaning to do something catching up with Ten Tall Men, the Foreign Legion picture he made with Burt Lancaster), Goldbeck penned a number of Dr Kildare programmers as well as a couple of Stuart Palmer adaptations , not to mention the deeply unpleasant Freaks for Tod Browning. Tiger by the Tail is a smoothly written piece, albeit a seemingly unusual one for a man close to the end of his career and due to go out on a relative high with a brace of John Ford movies – Sergeant Rutledge and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

The movie looks attractive throughout and is set up nicely by that generic but stylish and effective opening. The cinematography is Eric Cross (who also shot the visually interesting The Dark Man) and the always reliable John Gilling occupies the director’s chair. Gilling had an eye for a good-looking setup and even if he was as abrasive as his reputation suggests he did, as a rule, manage to get solid or better performances from the actors he worked with. He remains something of an underrated filmmaker although, interestingly, the upcoming Hammer box set from Indicator/Powerhouse is as near a John Gilling collection as we’re  likely to see.

And so to the actors. Neither Larry Parks nor Constance Smith will be household names these days, and indeed I’d be amazed if anyone aside from the most dedicated film buffs are at all familiar with them. Nevertheless, back when Tiger by the Tail went into production both would have enjoyed a considerably higher profile. For different reasons these two people dropped virtually out of sight after having tasted success. One would have though a Best Actor nomination in a big budget movie would ensure a more lasting fame, but such was the power of the blacklist that someone like Parks could see his career grind to a halt almost immediately. I’ll have to confess that I’ve not seen much of his work and can only recall The Swordsman, a fairly entertaining Joseph H Lewis swashbuckler.

Constance Smith fell from grace for entirely different reasons, although her troubles are not unprecedented in Hollywood. Coming from a poor Irish background, Smith quite literally shot to fame and found herself rapidly moving from Rank in Britain to Fox in Hollywood and making star appearances alongside some major names. However, as fast as her fame arrived, it evaporated at a similarly giddy pace. Out of contract, with a personal life descending into chaos, she left the US but the years ahead were to be even more tumultuous. Not that any of this is apparent when watching Tiger by the Tail, where her performance is just fine.

Recent years have been good to fans of British crime and noir. There was a time when these kinds of movies were sprinkled throughout the TV listings, albeit as filler material. Then they seemed to disappear, leaving many wondering if they’d ever be seen again. Small independent labels such as Renown, along with Network and Simply, have done some terrific work in making so many of these forgotten titles available once again. The Renown DVD of Tiger by the Tail has the movie looking quite good; the contrast might be a touch harsh here and there and there are a few damaged frames, but it’s not at all a bad presentation. All in all, I found it a solid little film noir with some highly competent talent behind the camera, and a couple of very interesting stars in the leading roles. In short, an enjoyable movie.

Thunder Over the Plains

I can never quite make my mind up on voiceover narration in the movies; after all, it does create what might be termed an authoritative mood that feels somehow fitting for certain pictures such as documentary-style films noir. On the other hand, it can give the impression of lazy writing, an info dump of sorts that resorts to telling rather than showing, or what’s worse is that it can signal the arrival of historical/political lecturing or finger-wagging. Thunder Over the Plains (1953) opens like this, offering up a potted post-Civil War synopsis that had me fearing the worst. Fortunately though, it panned out differently, the narration serving to contextualize the story before letting the drama at its heart grab the reins and move center stage.

The background is Texas in the years following the Civil War – Reconstruction and carpetbaggers loom large, and with them come all the frustration, resentment and anarchy one might expect in the aftermath of conflict. The main thrust of the story concerns the attacks on the despised carpetbaggers and the role of the army in trying to establish and maintain an uneasy semblance of order. That thankless task has fallen to native Texan Captain Porter (Randolph Scott), and while the burden of duty weighs heavily on him, there’s no doubting his professional ethics. Porter’s main antagonist is Ben Westman (Charles McGraw), a Robin Hood figure among the local population, an especially troublesome thorn in the side of the grasping tax agents, and something as elusive as a shadow in the early morning mist for the hard-pressed military. Porter, and indeed his whole command, is trapped in the middle, regarded with a sneering contempt by the locals while having his hands effectively tied by remote figures in Washington. And so the tit for tat sniping continues, with the warring factions fencing more or less  harmlessly until a would-be informer turns up dead. It’s at this point that the situation creeps relentlessly towards another level of volatility, and Porter also faces the added hassle of a dealing with a newly arrived officer (Lex Barker) who not only lacks professional judgement but has set his sights on wooing his superior’s wife.

It’s never less than a pleasure to come back to the films of Andre de Toth, and although the movies he made with Randolph Scott aren’t held in the same regard as those the star worked on with Budd Boetticher I still feel there’s much to admire and enjoy. With a deep and talented cast, a highly accomplished cinematographer (and frequent John Ford collaborator) in Bert Glennon, and a story overflowing with internal conflict, the director would have found it difficult to go wrong. De Toth  handles the action scenes with gusto, and there’s a lovely little bit of business with McGraw and Scott stalking each other in the aftermath o a well staged ambush. And throughout it all there are some clever close-ups and interesting angles calculated to heighten the tension.

I’ve just spoken of internal conflict, and Randolph Scott (especially as he aged) seemed to grow increasingly confident exploring the dramatic potential of this. Stoicism was one of his greatest on screen traits and this was always employed most effectively when the challenge he faced had its roots within himself. He’s very successful at getting across the sense of a man who is well aware of what his responsibilities are and to whom he owes his professional allegiance, but at the same time is none too fond of the guy looking back at him from the mirror. For all that, the viewer never has any serious doubts concerning his doing the right thing when the chips are down. While Scott is working on the self-appraisal, Charles McGraw is enjoying himself tantalizing the audience with the kind of ambiguity his gruff roguishness was ideal for. Scott generally did some of his more interesting work when facing off against a charismatic and appealing foe – think Lee Marvin, Richard Boone or Claude Akins – and McGraw has something of that quality about him.

If I have a criticism of this movie it lies with the part played by Lex Barker. It’s  not that I have any issue with Barker’s handling of his role – if anything, I’d say he does a pretty good job with a largely unsympathetic part – but my beef is with the way it’s written. With a plot that sees Scott at war with himself as his home state descends into chaos, I feel there was no need to add in an extra layer of conflict in a movie running a shade under an hour and a half. Barker had just come off the Tarzan movies and I get the feeling (this is just a hunch, mind, without any hard evidence to back it up) his part was expanded artificially here. Using his character as a spanner in the military works makes some sense, but the supposed rivalry for the affections of Phyllis Kirk adds nothing of substance to the story and ends up feeling like a lame and half-hearted afterthought. Still, even if that’s a weakness in the picture, there’s plenty of enjoyment to be had from watching the likes of Henry Hull and Elisha Cook Jr, alongside familiar faces such as Lane Chandler and Hugh Sanders, doing their stuff.

Nowadays, there aren’t too many Randolph Scott westerns that can’t be tracked down and enjoyed. Thunder Over the Plains popped up on DVD in the US some years ago via Warner Brothers on a triple feature set, sharing disc space with Riding Shotgun. Bearing in mind the fact it’s squeezed on alongside another movie, it doesn’t look too bad at all. Naturally, the presentation is basic and there’s nothing in the way of supplements, which I think is a pity. Sure these films that Scott and de Toth made together don’t have the kind of reputation that the Ranown movies enjoy, and I’ll freely admit they are a notch below them in quality, but I can’t help feeling they deserve a little more critical attention. Recent years have seen a number of reappraisals and fresh evaluations of the artistic and cultural legacies of a range of filmmakers. Perhaps it’s now time for a new look at these movies?

Back to God’s Country

Rugged outdoor adventures have a timeless appeal and I think it’s true too that the cold weather variety carry with them an invigorating quality, as though the  crisp, chilled air blasting the protagonists on the screen adds a little freshness and energy to our viewing. A film such as Back to God’s Country (1953) is a largely formulaic affair yet is enlivened considerably by its sub-polar setting. Of course, following a formula need not necessarily be seen as a failing; handling and execution are key elements and, with the movie in question, I feel director Joseph Pevney brings a briskness to the piece that makes its hour and a quarter running time positively zip along.

It’s the late 19th century and we’re  in the icy north of Canada. Peter Keith (Rock Hudson) is running a schooner trading fur pelts in the US and is keen to get underway before the winter freeze sets in and leaves his vessel unable to sail. As such, he’s vexed to receive an official letter ordering him to remain in port until an inspection can be made of his cargo. That would mean a delay which might well see him sealed in for the season and the consequent hit to his finances it would entail. While he and his wife Dolores (Marcia Henderson) have made up their minds to ignore the order and put to sea anyway, it comes to the attention of both that there might be something fishy about the whole thing. Local bigwig Paul Blake (Steve Cochran) is expansive and hospitable yet there’s an oiliness about him and it looks like he may be behind the request, partly for financial gain and partly (maybe even mostly) because he far from honorable designs on Dolores. Thus, with rivalry and subterfuge established, the scene is set for a showdown which will play out for the most part over a couple of enforced journeys through the frozen wastes.

Back to God’s Country appears to have been filmed twice before, back in the silent era, and I can see how the combination of adventure, melodrama and romance would have drawn filmmakers eyeing a source with reasonably wide appeal. Now I’ve no idea how Pevney’s movie compares with those earlier iterations, and indeed I don’t even know whether they still exist or are available for viewing. What I can say though is that this movie represents a marvelous piece of escapism, a no-nonsense slice of entertainment with that characteristic aesthetic one associates with Universal-International pictures. The combination of studio shooting and some location work in Colorado and Idaho is handled most attractively by cinematographer Maury Gertsman, with Pevney marshaling it all with pace and energy. The story holds no real surprises, and arguably has its fair share of cliches, but the meanness, the naked self-interest and almost perverse covetousness of the villain add an edge and an unexpected extra layer.

Steve Cochran was born to play villains, his self-assurance and grace offer a sheen of sophistication, while all the time there’s a gleam in his eye that hints at a ruthlessness any time the main chance wanders into view. By and large, he plays it cool but there is one scene in particular – an assault on Henderson – where he, unfortunately, cuts loose and indulges in the kind of eye-rolling, over-the-top hammy histrionics that would put many a mustache-twirling cartoon cad to shame. His character is of course a thoroughly bad lot, a blackmailer and master manipulator with a history of grabbing possession of whatever and whoever he wants. And there’s a sadistic side to him that goes beyond mere greed, his treatment of Hugh O’Brian’s forger is a case in point, holding him in what amounts to bonded labor. O’Brian does well in that part too, allowing his natural charm to soften his own villainy and act as a counterpoint to Cochran’s.

Pitted against these two are Rock Hudson and Marcia Henderson, and they make for an attractive and resourceful couple. Hudson was in the process of building his career at the studio (a career that Ross Hunter and Douglas Sirk would soon move to a whole different level) and this type of role, while not all that demanding dramatically, was the kind of thing  that couldn’t hurt. He gets to play it tough and heroic, even in the latter half of the movie when a broken leg sees him essentially confined to a sled. A good deal of the drama arises from a combination of Cochran’s machinations, the deteriorating weather conditions, and also some frankly poor decisions on the part of Hudson’s character. He makes amends for them, naturally, but this also gives Henderson the opportunity to prove her mettle. She too displays a hard edge when the chips are down, playing well off Hudson and holding her own quite convincingly when she has to.

Back to God’s Country may not be all that well-known but nor should it be all that difficult to locate. There seem to have been DVDs released pretty much everywhere – I have this Italian version which seems to have gone out of print and been replaced by another by the same company claiming a Hi-Def restoration  – still, I’d imagine all will be using the same transfer. Generally, it looks OK, but there is a bit of damage and overall ageing visible. Sometimes I think I could happily spend my days watching, and writing about, nothing but Universal-International movies; they’re that entertaining. There’s a polish and professionalism on show that mean even undemanding and average efforts like this offer a good deal of viewing pleasure.

Another view of the movie, from Laura, can also be accessed here.

The Duel at Silver Creek

Pulp, a word that usually ends up being employed in a derogatory way. It suggests the cheap, the disposable, and that sense of something a bit crude and tawdry is never far from the surface. It carries around the sour taste  of intellectual snobbery, a self-aware superiority that drains the  joy from entertainment. But, let’s not forget that entertainment and art are under no obligation to remain stand-offish strangers. Frankly, I like pulp material and always have, long before I became aware of the negative connotations assigned to the term by some, or was even aware of the term itself for that matter. As with so many other forms of artistic expression, it worked its way into my consciousness from an early age, entrancing and enchanting an eager mind. In short, this is where the seeds of my lifelong affection for cinema, literature and countless other art forms was first sown. And so to the The Duel at Silver Creek (1952), a film that is unashamedly and satisfyingly pulpy.

The story is a simple one, telling a tale of claim jumpers, manipulation and revenge. The bulk of the action takes place in and around the titular town of Silver Creek, where the villains have set up an outwardly respectable front. The town is served by a lawman going by the colorful name of “Lightning” Tyrone (Stephen McNally), renowned for his speed with a gun but hampered by an injury following a run-in with the aforementioned criminals. The murder of a friend adds a personal element to the marshal’s motivations, and this hunger for a reckoning is shared by his newly acquired ally, a youthful gambler and gunman known as The Silver Kid (Audie Murphy). The efforts of these two to chase down the claim jumpers forms the basis of the plot but it all gets a little more complicated when a layer of romance and intrigue appears in the shape of Opal Lacy (Faith Domergue), a particularly devious addition to the limited but frequently impressive roster of western femme fatales.

There are a number of things which jump out at you while watching this movie. Firstly, it’s a Universal-International production so it has the distinctive and unmistakable look that can be found in all of the studio’s output of that era. The Technicolor cinematography of Irving Glassberg is quite beautiful at times, and the shadowy nighttime interiors are rendered in an especially attractive and evocative way. It’s in these moments that a film noir flavor is most noticeable, and that aspect is highlighted both by the intermittent voiceover provided by McNally and the calculated and ruthless machinations of Domergue. Then there are the character names – Lightning Tyrone, The Silver Kid, Johnny Sombrero, Dusty Fargo, Tinhorn Burgess, Rat Face Blake, etc – carrying that unreal yet alluring quality of something ripped from a comic strip. Presiding over all this is Don Siegel, a man still learning his trade at this stage – the pacing is a little off in the second act – but already  showing the visual economy that can be found in his best work.

With a plot-driven, action-oriented piece of filmmaking the characterization is always going to come in a very distant second place. Audie Murphy and Stephen McNally were highly capable actors, the former still on the learning curve but growing in confidence all the time while the latter was an experienced and solid second lead/support man. Seeing the names of Murphy or McNally in the credits generally means a movie is worth watching, in my opinion. Neither one is asked to stretch himself particularly here in pretty one-dimensional roles, but they never offer less than good value. Even though I wouldn’t call myself a  great fan of Faith Domergue, I’ll freely admit she did fit the femme fatale mold quite snugly and she vamps very successfully in this part. Susan Cabot is cast in a tomboyish part which, while attractive enough in its own way, feels like a bit of a waste. I think the main weakness though comes from the rather insipid bad guys. While Domergue’s flashiness was always going to overshadow them Gerald Mohr and Eugene Iglesias don’t provide much of a threat to compensate. On the other hand, Lee Marvin does make a definite impression as a loudmouthed townsman in one of his earliest roles.

Looking around at what is available for viewing nowadays, it has to be said that fans of classic westerns have much to grateful for. The vast majority of Audie Murphy’s movies are now accessible in good to excellent quality – a handful are still only viewable via sub-par editions – although it doesn’t seem all that long ago that The Duel at Silver Creek was one of the few that could be picked up easily. I don’t believe it’s been upgraded to Hi-Def but it still looks good to my eyes. If the film isn’t going to offer any new insights, it has to be said it still provides a powerfully enjoyable way to pass an hour and a quarter, which is never a bad thing. That, I feel, is as good a way as any to round off 2019 and to wish everyone a happy, fulfilling and successful 2020.

Detective Story

Cinema and theater, two near relatives in the visual/performance art sphere, both well suited to the presentation of drama via their shared familial traits while also exploiting their own distinctive characteristics to spin their yarns in subtly different ways. In brief, theater is all about intimacy and immediacy – capturing the essence of the moment in an almost tangible way – whereas cinema, somewhat paradoxically, uses its inherent distance to draw us in through the broader visual splendor. The fusion of these two competing yet complementary forms can have mixed results, largely dependent on the scope of the production and its ultimate goal. At worst, it can descend into a static talk-fest, trapped by structure and a vague sense of claustrophobia. On the other hand, a clever filmmaker can use his cinematic bag of tricks to create the illusion of breadth without sacrificing the feeling of closeness associated with the stage. William Wyler’s Detective Story (1951) makes a reasonable fist of striking an equitable balance.

In a nutshell, we’re witnesses at the wake and funeral of one man’s humanity. It opens on a bustling New York street and quickly moves indoors, into the precinct house that will form the backdrop for the bulk of the story. We’ve seen this a thousand times; cops and criminals coming and going, some chirpy and others dejected but most just mired in the routine of their everyday lives. Gradually, the focus is drawn to Jim McLeod (Kirk Douglas), a superficially typical detective, cocksure and confident in his professional and personal life. Yet right away, there are hints of something not ideal as he shares a quick kiss with his wife Mary (Eleanor Parker). A snatch of conversation, an apparently throwaway line suggests that the All-American wholesomeness on display may be misleading. And so it proves to be as the various characters, from a ditzy shoplifter to a lovestruck embezzler sharing the squad room with genuinely vicious hoodlums, orbit the core drama that will force the McLeods to confront their own inner selves.

Rather than spend a lot of time on the plot and how it develops, I’d prefer to mull over some thoughts that occurred to me as I watched this movie again. To begin, I liked Wyler’s unobtrusive direction and the way he uses Lee Garmes’ cinematography to contextualize not only each scene but the movie as a whole. Wyler can, I suppose, be seen as one of those classic era heavyweights who tended to be associated with “important” pictures. We’re talking “message movies” and that phrase may well evoke thoughts of Stanley Kramer and others at their most ponderous. Still, that’s not entirely fair for these people knew how to shoot a film with skill and artistry too. Here the theme is the impossibility, or maybe the undesirability, of pursuing  purity on an emotional, intellectual and philosophical level. McLeod is set up as a man striving to become a paragon. The story charts the deconstruction of this effort, finally highlighting the hollowness at the heart of it all. And Garmes’ photography, especially his deep focus shooting, keeps the viewer aware of the satellite stories circling the main event, thus preserving the intimacy of the theatrical experience while simultaneously adding a wider cinematic perspective.

I started off this piece referring to the different approaches cinema and the theater take to the same material and those thoughts were always with me as I watched Detective Story. The origin is a stage production, written by Sidney Kingsley, and that aspect is always there, mainly in the restricted setting but even in some of the performances too, to a certain extent anyway. The stage, with the necessity to project calls for a bigger performance, and the use of a different set of acting skills. Cinema is a whole different matter; the giant screens and the possibility of using close-ups, magnifying even the least significant twitch a thousand times, mean more care, control and minimalism are the order of the day. As much as anything, it’s the size of the performances that delineates these forms.

A simmering presence at all times, Kirk Douglas has always been capable of tailoring that size to the demands of a range of roles. I think he was generally at his best when working with strong, experienced directors and the part of McLeod demanded he tread a fine line, touching on the explosive and emotive without straying too far into bombast. His character is ruled and driven by an adherence to rigid principle and moral fundamentalism. This quest for purity has twisted his love and seen it mutate into a passion for vengeance, of the type that has the destruction of the soul as its final destination. It must have helped that the more powerful scenes had to be played against the assured Eleanor Parker. She provides the emotional center of the movie, grounding it and lending it meaning with dignity and empathy.

If the inherent theatricality of the roles has been harnessed by Douglas and Parker, I feel that Joseph Wiseman kept a looser grip on the reins.  There’s a loudness about his work here, and that even goes for the times when he’s not speaking a word, and a tendency to succumb to self-indulgence. He’s very definitely performing, is fully aware of the fact, and wants to make sure everyone watching him knows it too. This could have overwhelmed the picture, but it’s a credit to the measure and subtlety of the likes William Bendix, Cathy O’Donnell, Craig Hill and Frank Faylen that an equilibrium is maintained. And if I haven’t made individual reference to Lee Grant, George Macready, Horace McMahon and others, well that’s not to say their work is any less deserving of mention.

Personally, Detective Story has always been an enjoyable watch for me, powerful without being preachy and with a timelessness to the core theme to ensure it remains relevant. It’s never, to the best of my knowledge, been released on Blu-ray but the DVD  should be easy enough to track down and, besides, it looks excellent in standard definition.

Finally, I find it very pleasing too to be able to post this on the day the movie’s star Kirk Douglas turns 103.