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.

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!

The Sign of the Ram

As I was watching The Sign of the Ram (1948) I found myself idly wondering  – and I seem to have a great deal of time for idleness these days – about a number of things, perhaps the least significant of which was a growing curiosity about how many noir melodramas involved grand old houses perched precariously atop dramatic cliffs with boiling seas below. Sitting and admiring the atmospheric matte paintings in the background, I had  hunch there must be lots, but I think now that’s probably an exaggeration on my part. Whatever the number might actually be, it won’t alter the fact that this is a fine setting for a movie, the drama and violence of nature vying for attention with the emotional tempests raging within the quasi-Gothic old pile that houses a host of troubled souls.

Nothing is quite as it seems. Sherida Binyon (Phyllis Thaxter) arrives to take up her new position as secretary to poet Leah St Aubyn (Susan Peters), who is confined to a wheelchair. Her husband Mallory (Alexander Knox) is devoted to her and it’s quickly apparent that everyone in the house, all the children of Mallory’s first marriage, shares these sentiments. On the surface, it looks as though the sweetness and stoic rejection of self-pity on Leah’s part are the inspiration for this. Yet that’s not the case at all; Leah’s disability is the result of her rescuing the younger St Aubyn members during a storm off the coast, a heroically altruistic act which saw her cast upon the rocks and her body broken. Bit by bit, it becomes increasingly apparent that there’s an implicit, unspoken sense of guilt at the back of it all, a tacit acceptance that the lives snatched back from the grasp of the sea represent a debt that is hard to repay. In a savage twist on that old belief that saving a life leaves a person responsible for that life in the future, it is gradually revealed that Leah has manipulated her family’s gratitude into a corrosive form of guilt. And all the while the ocean booms against the Cornish rocks, biding its time till the payment it’s due can be collected.

 

Personally speaking, John Sturges isn’t the first name I’d think of were I asked to name a potential director of a film noir with a strong flavoring of Gothic melodrama. Of course Sturges, like all contract directors in the studio era, worked across a range of genres and was no stranger to film noir – Mystery Street, Jeopardy & The People Against O’Hara comprising a few. Nevertheless, I tend to think of westerns, and as to a lesser extent, war movies when he’s spoken of. He had a terrific eye for composition and the way the framing of a shot could be used to the greatest advantage. This would become ever more apparent in the future when he embraced and fully exploited the potential of the wide screen, and he knew how to place his actors on location too. The Sign of the Ram is set bound though and shot in Academy ratio so it could be said that it wasn’t playing to his strengths. While that may be true to some extent, he does take full advantage of what opportunities are afforded and, aided immensely by the masterly cinematography of Burnett Guffey, shoots from below an above to alter the mood and adds frames within frames to narrow the focus and fasten the viewers’ attention.

Looked at from the perspective of 2020, The Sign of the Ram doesn’t feature a cast full of the kind of names that are going to be immediately recognizable. Despite that relative unfamiliarity, it would be fair to say the film boasts an interesting lineup. The leading lady and prime mover of the whole piece is Susan Peters, and hers is a fascinating and tragic tale. With her star on the rise and only a year or so into her marriage to actor and future director Richard Quine, she was the victim of a hunting accident when a discarded gun discharged and the resultant wound left her paralyzed from the waist down. She was just 23 years old then and she would pass away at the age of 31. This film was to be her comeback and she is fine in her role, carefully hiding her true feelings from those around and only offering hints to her dissatisfaction in her private moments and through her constant chain-smoking. All told, it’s an excellent study of the consequences of manipulation driven by fear.

Alexander Knox is likely to be the best known face on the screen, his long and varied career highlighting his versatility – something I noted before when looking at his excellent work in an unfamiliar western setting in Man in the Saddle – and he gets across the decency of his character in a most believable fashion here. Phyllis Thaxter looks set to enjoy a more dynamic role as the new secretary, a point of view figure for the audience to identify with, but she seems to gradually drift towards the sidelines as the story unfolds. Peggy Ann Garner gets the showier part as the younger daughter in the family while Allene Roberts and Ross Ford are both perfectly acceptable as her siblings. Diana Douglas (the wife of Kirk Douglas at the time) comes more into the spotlight in the latter stages and there’s solid support from Dame May Whitty and Ron Randell.

The Sign of the Ram is a Columbia picture and, as far as I’m aware, has not enjoyed a release on disc anywhere. However, it can be tracked down for online viewing. I guess the lack of big name stars in the cast may have led to this movie being neglected. In addition, I sometimes think that Sturges work overall has not been had the critical attention much of it deserves. Perhaps his move into big budget, popular movies through the 1960s and then the variable quality of his later work is the reason. Whatever the reason, he’s highly rated on this site and I feel this film from early in his career is at least worth a look.

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.

Larceny

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Spin a Dark Web

How essential is the femme fatale in film noir? Sure her presence is one of the characteristics you will hear mentioned time and again should  you ask people to check off a list of the necessary ingredients. But is this presence or absence actually integral, and does it define the style? I’m inclined to think no, I’ve seen plenty of undoubted films noir where this character didn’t appear and I don’t feel their dark credentials were diminished as a consequence. On the other hand, the question represents an itch I get the urge to scratch every so often, especially after watching a movie like Spin a Dark Web (1956), where there is an explicit femme fatale whose malign influence drives the plot.

Whatever else one might say about film noir it certainly requires what might be termed the fall guy, someone who manages to get himself involved in a complex and perilous situation. Jim Bankley (Lee Patterson) fits that particular bill here, a Canadian living in post-war London, hanging around the fringes of the fight game and keen to pick up some easy money fast. He’s casually attached to a fight trainer’s daughter, Betty (Rona Anderson), but is restless and hungry for cash, restless enough to drop her if the rewards are appealing enough. Looking up an old friend leads to a encounter with gangster Rico Francesi (Martin Benson) and his predatory sister Bella (Faith Domergue). What follows won’t create too many surprises – Bankley is drawn by the glamor of the rackets and Bella is only to happy to lure him ever deeper into her web. As ever, while the profits of the racketeering and the attentions of the dangerously seductive Sicilian prove attractive, there will be a moment of truth, an occurrence which will bring home to our anti-hero the sourness at the back of it all. And that’s when the real danger kicks in…

I don’t suppose many people will be queuing up to sing the praises of director Vernon Sewell but the fact is I’ve become very fond of his work. He made a series of short and tightly paced movies throughout the late 1940s and the 1950s which are, based on the evidence of those I’ve seen so far, very entertaining and occasionally stylish too. Spin a Dark Web is, as I’ve acknowledged, a standard gangster yarn. Nevertheless, the extensive location shooting, much of which is done in a deliberately impersonal documentary style, adds a grittiness to the movie. Additionally, the planning and execution of the complicated racing sting that fleshes out the middle section of the film is well done and highly absorbing. Throw in a number of tough action set pieces and we’re looking at a solid little noir thriller.

Faith Domergue (Where Danger Lives) is the Hollywood star handed top billing in Spin a Dark Web, and the full-on femme fatale referred to at the top of this piece. She’s the kind of actress I can take or leave, largely dependent on the role she was asked to play. The role of Bella is one that works well in that it uses her cold passion to its best advantage. I think she possessed a detached chilliness and that’s ideal for the part of the self-absorbed and psychopathic woman. Those traits are ideal in the femme fatale, and it’s her conscience-free ruthlessness that makes this film succeed. So, can I answer the question I posed for myself? I’m going to hedge it by saying the femme fatale is essential here; without her deadly allure the fall guy or patsy is rendered meaningless and the film is stripped of much of its potency.

Balance is always important so a counterweight to the femme fatale in the shape of a Girl Friday figure is usually desirable, and it’s hard to think of the better choice for such a part in 1950s British cinema than Rona Anderson. She has the natural grace and charm to offset the driving aggression of Domergue, the selflessness to highlight the hollow appeal of the villainess. What would the British crime film be without Lee Patterson? I liked his work on The Flying Scot when I viewed it a few years ago and Spin a Dark Web again sees him turning in one of those typically dependable performances in a shady, semi-heroic part. I’m not sure I’ve seen much of Robert Arden beyond his central role in Orson Welles’ Mr Arkadin. He has the kind of hulking amiability about him that lends itself well to sidekick or best friend types, and just enough edginess to carry the notion of a man comfortable on the shadowy side of the street. Martin Benson is fine as the chief gangster, although he does stray close to caricature on a few occasions. Finally, there’s good support from familiar character actors Sam Kydd and Bernard Fox.

Spin a Dark Web has been released on DVD in the US by Sony as part of their MOD line. The disc only carries the movie and the trailer but it looks strong and is presented in an attractive 1.66:1 widescreen ratio. The film has also been put out in the just released Noir Archive Vol. 2 on Blu-ray, a set I may well pick up as it contains a number of other interesting sounding films I don’t already have. All in all, I found this an excellent British film noir, well acted and directed and coming in at a snappy hour and a quarter.

Floods of Fear

There’s drama to be found in extremes, which may be of the economic, political, social or emotional variety. The latter is, of course, the most engaging and involving from the viewer’s perspective and gains from being combined with some other highly charged circumstance. In Floods of Fear (1958) we’re presented with our extreme situation in the form of an environmental catastrophe, the floods of the title. In contrast to the big budget, disaster epics that would become popular in the years ahead, this modest British noir places the focus firmly on a handful of central relationships and this limited scale and scope is one of its great strengths.

It all begins with the aftermath of severe and prolonged rainfall and storms, the adverse weather having raised water levels in the Humboldt River to dangerous levels. The opening sees preparations underway to try to shore up flood defenses and prevent, or at least attempt to hold in check, a catastrophic inundation. With resources strained to breaking point, the state has taken to using convicts to assist in the repairs and fortification. When the elements flex their muscles though and sweep aside the levee another threat, a criminal one, is unleashed along with the flood waters. As a result, Elizabeth Matthews (Anne Heywood), who has been rescued from her stranded vehicle by convicted murderer Donavan (Howard Keel), finds herself holed up in her rapidly disintegrating home with the lecherous and cunning Peebles (Cyril Cusack) and injured prison guard Sharkey (Harry H Corbett). The tension among this disparate group is palpable while the desire to get away is rising as rapidly as the rank and freezing waters outside. Although all these characters have their own reasons for wanting to leave, the most pressing and intriguing seems to be that of Donavan, who appears to have a private score to settle.

Floods of Fear is an unusual British noir, not only adopting the look and feel of the classic Hollywood variety but going a step further and setting its story in the US. That story was adapted from a Saturday Evening Post serial (later published in novel form) by John & Ward Hawkins called simply A Girl, a Man and a River. And it is a fairly simple and straightforward story, using the framework of the disaster as a background for the various human dramas taking place within. The main thrust is provided by Donavan’s quest for justice, or a reckoning, but it’s the smaller and more personal conflicts among the core cast members that account for the emotional punch the picture carries.

Aside from the fact there is a solid noir/thriller plot involving some interesting characters with credible motivation, the movie benefits enormously from the cinematography of Christopher Challis. Sure there is some stock footage cut in to allow the studio shot material to breathe a little, but that set bound work looks extraordinarily good for the most part, and it’s largely down to how well Challis photographed it. There are a number of terrific nighttime sequences with the characters struggling through treacherous tides, silhouetted against lowering and leaden skies just beyond the clawing branches of half-submerged trees and vegetation.  The direction by Ealing comedy specialist Charles Crichton is strong and maintains the pace and toughness that a movie like this depends on.

Personally, I’m not entirely convinced the film needed to be set in the US, nor am I sure the consequent necessity of getting the majority of the actors to adopt (with varying degrees of success) fake accents adds much value. Anyway, that’s the way the producers decided to go. Howard Keel had made his debut as a screen actor in a British thriller The Small Voice a decade before, and I found him quietly impressive in that role. Floods of Fear saw him back in British films, once again outside his more natural home in musicals and once again turning in a solid performance. It’s a physical role and Keel provides a very powerful presence which is essential under the circumstances. Apart from battles against the tides, he gets to take part in a tough and well choreographed fight with fellow US actor John Crawford at the climax. Anne Heywood is both attractive and credible as the girl trapped by the environmental and human dangers, and demonstrates some welcome range and character development as the story unfolds. One of the standout performances comes from Irish actor Cyril Cusack – creepy, shifty, emotionally unstable and wholly untrustworthy, he steals nearly every scene he appears in. I want to add a word of praise for Harry H Corbett too, an actor whose dramatic roles have not always made a particularly positive impression on me. This is one occasion where I felt he was fine though and there was none of the broadness that I feel he allowed to creep into some of his straight parts.

Floods of Fear is a film I had first stumbled upon on TV decades ago and it always stuck in my mind. As is often the case, the movie proved a bit difficult to track down for viewing during all those years and so it was a pleasure to discover it had been released on DVD  in the UK by Strawberry Media. The disc uses a fairly good print and the movie looks good overall. However, a 1958 production would surely have been shot in some kind of widescreen ratio (1.75:1 or 1.66:1 I’d have thought) and is presented 1.33:1 on the DVD. It doesn’t look cropped so I suppose we’re talking about an open-matte presentation – something which is obviously not ideal but is not terrible either. All told, I’m glad the film is available commercially and I think it’s one that should win over a few new fans.

Three Steps to the Gallows

Last summer I spent a long time trawling through a range of British crime movies, and had a most enjoyable time in the process. I can’t promise to devote the same time this year but I do want to look at a few more examples of these B pictures. Additionally, it’s an opportunity to fit in some  cast and crew who have earned passing mentions on this site, and who I do want to draw a little attention to. So with that in mind, I’d like to begin with Three Steps to the Gallows (1953), a pacy and hugely entertaining film noir.

Alfred Hitchcock famously spoke of the “MacGuffin” as a plot device, namely something which is of inordinate and perhaps life-threatening importance to the protagonists of a drama, which motivates them and drives the narrative yet is of little real concern to the viewers. In Three Steps to the Gallows this applies to the diamonds, and I’d be amazed if anyone who watches this movie has the part played by these gemstones in mind by the time the film has come to a close. Nevertheless, diamonds, or should we say the smuggling of diamonds, is vital to the characters on screen. Gregor Stevens (Scott Brady) is an American seaman on shore leave in London, first seen happily disembarking from his ship and off to pay a visit to his brother who is resident in the capital. He’s checked out of his accommodation and a stop at the travel agency where he was employed as a courier reveals he has moved on from there, although a customer (Mary Castle) appears to recognize the name before seeing something that makes her reconsider. To cut to the chase, a few more inquiries lead Stevens to the shocking realization that his brother has not only been arrested for murder but has subsequently been tired, convicted and has a date with the hangman in three days time. And that’s where the diamonds come in; the condemned man seems to have been involved with a smuggling outfit and been framed for a killing as a result. Where does this leave the brother? Well, he has 72 hours to blunder and bludgeon his way around the criminal underworld in an attempt to clear his sibling’s name and, hopefully, nail the true culprits.

As was so often the case, Three Steps to the Gallows imported Hollywood talent to add some more box-office appeal. Both Scott Brady and Mary Castle were the transatlantic stars used, and they do add a touch of noir authenticity, in my opinion. Brady was a reasonably big name at the time, although he has probably been overshadowed somewhat by his more notorious older brother Lawrence Tierney since then. Brady had a few brushes with the law himself and had a tough demeanor too. It’s this aspect, the physicality of the man, that is highlighted most in the movie. His character crashes around London like an impatient and short-tempered bouncer, finding himself framed for a killing even as he tries to clear his brother and frequently resorting to his fists before his brain has had a chance to catch up. On paper, this possibly sounds off-putting but Brady manages to make this bruising lead sympathetic. Rita Hayworth lookalike Mary Castle, whose life took a series of noir turns itself, is fine as the girl who offers him his first opening and moves from potential femme fatale to Girl Friday. The supporting cast is typical of these B features and includes such welcome and well-known faces as Ballard Berkeley, Colin Tapley, Ronan O’Casey, John Blythe and Ferdy Mayne.

Three Steps to the Gallows was a Tempean Films production, meaning that it came from producers Monty Berman and Robert S Baker, the former also taking on the cinematography duties here. These two played a significant role in British film and television in the post-war years. Tempean Films was responsible for a number of spare and entertaining crime movies and the Baker-Berman partnership was then instrumental bringing about many of the best ITC TV series, including The Saint with Rober Moore. The direction was handled by the ever reliable and generally stylish John Gilling, who started out as a prolific writer and director of B noir before moving on to bigger budgets, Hammer Films and television work. Here, Gilling moves everything along very snappily and the film perfectly captures the slightly seedy and decaying post-war milieu.

It’s easy to track down a copy of Three Steps to the Gallows, in the UK at least. The film has been released on DVD by Renown Films, that rich source of British B movies. The quality of the print is variable, looking crisp in some shots but dupey and with overdone contrast in others. There is also some print damage or dirt to be seen here and there, but the movie remains perfectly watchable at all times, and I doubt whether better versions are ever likely to surface. Anyone who enjoys British crime and noir movies of the era should find plenty to satisfy them in this one.