Little Red Monkey

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Topicality is often seen as a desirable quality in films. Movies are and were, above all else, made to earn money, and what better way to do so than to present your audience with a story that has its finger on the pulse of current affairs. I’m happy to acknowledge this fact but, as someone who spends a lot of time watching, discussing and dissecting older films, I’m in the habit of looking beyond those immediate concerns. All of that was a roundabout way of putting forward the theory that topicality and longevity, and by extension artistic value, may be less than mere casual acquaintances, but might in fact be perfect strangers. These were thoughts that were running through my head the other day as I was watching Little Red Monkey (1955), a film which is firmly rooted in the concerns and mindset prevalent in the Cold War.

Intrigue is surely one of the essential ingredients of a thriller, and Little Red Monkey kicks off with a series of intriguing episodes. To be more precise, we start off witnessing a succession of killings, the assassinations of top scientists. Aside from the acts of murder themselves, all are linked by the curious phenomenon of taking place when a small monkey is present. Now that’s the kind of hook that’s bound to snag the interest of the press and thus we move smoothly to a press conference where a harried government representative is fielding  questions that the reporters are lobbing relentlessly in his direction. They want to know who is behind the violence, what it’s all about, and what’s with the monkey. While the face of officialdom calmly bats away query after awkward query, he has beside him a silent but attentive figure. This is Superintendent Harrington (Russell Napier), the man charged with investigating these events. Before heading off to meet a special arrival at the airport Harrington first spars coolly with Harry Martin (Colin Gordon), one of the more persistent newspaperman in attendance. The nature of the relationship between press and police was one aspect of the film which jumped out at me, and in truth didn’t sit all that comfortably, but I’ll return to that later. Harrington is off to meet a defector whose plane has just touched down and also the man who will be shortly assuming full responsibility for his safety. The defector is simply in the UK to make a transfer before proceeding on to the US, and Bill Locklin (Richard Conte) is the State Department man there to see it all goes as planned. And so we have all the key elements of our scenario falling into place: a supposedly routine babysitting operation that is in danger of being derailed by a bizarre assassination plot and a dogged press.

I like spy stories, I like the trappings of them and the situations typically arising out of them, and I generally like the Cold War milieu that frequently inspires these tales. I also enjoy a good crime yarn, even better if it happens to involve impossible or fantastic elements. In short, Little Red Monkey ought to be right up my street, and yet it didn’t work for me. Why? I think it comes down to a combination of not really caring about the main characters and the movie’s focus on what were probably the contemporary hot topics of defectors and fifth columnists. Frankly, I found the characters of Harrington and Locklin brash, dismissive and perilously close to authoritarian. And these are the good guys. In addition to that, we have the overt suggestion, made more than once, that an unfettered and investigative media is at best a nuisance and maybe even a threat. Then we have the matter of the more unusual aspects of the story – how scientists seem to be getting bumped off by a monkey – getting sidelined in favor of mundane fifth column shenanigans and an insipid romance.  Ken Hughes made some fine shorts and features – Heat Wave is an enjoyable noir, for example – but I feel he squandered the opportunities to do something interesting with this one, allowing the duller moments to predominate.

Richard Conte was a dependable actor, capable of strong, diverse work in the likes of The Big Combo, The Blue Gardenia and Cry of the City but in this film he’s often brusque and snappish, alienating the viewers when he really ought to be connecting with them. Russell Napier is another chilly presence, appearing distant and remote when he’s not railing against reporters. The fact of the matter is the most sympathetic character in the movie is Colin Gordon’s irreverent hack. He’s no saint and has no particularly elevated opinion of himself or his profession but he is more real as a consequence. I found him very effective in Strongroom and this markedly different role is proof that he had some range as an actor. Rona Anderson does her best and is quite personable but her part as Conte’s romantic interest is unremarkable and doesn’t ask an awful lot of her.

Little Red Monkey is the kind of film that popped up in TV schedules with regularity in the past but not so nowadays. It’s been released on DVD in the UK by Network as part of their British Film line, and it looks reasonably good. I would have thought some kind of widescreen ratio would have been appropriate given the year of production but the framing at 4:3 is acceptable. Among the extra features included on the disc is an alternative opening sequence, a neat little touch. I guess it’s clear enough that I wasn’t exactly blown away by this film but all I can do is call it as I see it. To be clear, I don’t say Little Red Monkey is a bad movie, just a disappointing one. There are points of interest in there and it’s a professional piece of filmmaking but I don’t believe it has worn well and, alongside a vaguely unsavory subtext, is too tied to the era in which it was made. So, watchable but hardly essential in my view.

 

 

Tony Rome

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 This isn’t a family. It’s just a bunch of people living at the same address. 

Trends in cinema are constantly changing with genres rising and falling in popularity all the time. Despite that, the detective story has never really gone out of fashion, in the same way that the literary version stretching back to its earliest appearance in the works of Poe and Dickens remains consistently popular. Sure the style has altered over time, the snappy sophistication of the Van Dine and Queen influenced movies of the 30s giving way to the tougher hard-boiled dialect of the Hammett and Chandler adaptations of the 40s and so on. While the trappings and presentation may shift according to the mood of the times, the central figure of the detective is always with us. Whether these characters happen to be public servants or private investigators they are seekers after truth, and occasionally justice gets a look in too. By the 60s the gumshoe or shamus had passed through the period of post-war cynicism and, though some vestige of that weary attitude was still to be found, taken on an air of cool detachment. Under the circumstances, it’s hard to think of a better choice than Frank Sinatra to play the title character in Tony Rome (1967), a private eye yarn retaining most of the familiar motifs of the sub-genre and blending them into the more permissive atmosphere of the late 60s.

Tony Rome (Frank Sinatra) is a Miami based investigator, just about getting by, making enough to eat and pay off the gambling debts he’s fond of running up. A phone call from his ex-partner, Turpin (Robert J Wilke), lands him a job he’s not especially keen on but it doesn’t look like it’s going to require any great effort on his part either. A young woman (Sue Lyon) checked herself into the flea-pit hotel where Turpin is working as the house dick and promptly passed out under the influence of copious amounts of alcohol. Well so what? The thing is the hotel doesn’t need any further hassle from the law and the young lady just happens to be the daughter of Rudy Kosterman (Simon Oakland), an influential construction magnate. Rome stands to earn some easy money by simply delivering the tycoon’s daughter back home and ensuring no awkward questions are asked. Kosterman’s naturally happy to have the girl back but he’s also worried about her recent behavior – she’s been spending prolifically and it’s increasingly difficult for either her father or her incompetent milquetoast husband to control her. Firstly, Kosterman hires Rome to look into his daughter’s activities, then before he gets out of the door the millionaire’s wife (Gena Rowlands) wants to retain his services for an investigation of her own. When the motor launch that doubles as his home is ransacked by a couple of toughs convinced he must know the whereabouts of a jeweled pin the last thing he needs is another client. And yet that’s exactly what he gets the following morning as the Kosterman girl turns up and wants him to locate the jeweled pin (yes, that one) she mislaid in the course of her date with the whiskey bottle. Aside from the potential conflict of interests involved, an apparently straightforward assignment is beginning to turn into fairly complex mess. And that’s only the beginning; after Turpin turns up dead in Rome’s office the bodies start piling up with almost depressing regularity, threatening to sour his long-standing relationship with the police in the shape of Lieutenant Santini (Richard Conte), not to mention a potential relationship of another kind with divorcee Ann Archer (Jill St John). By the time the case is concluded Rome will lay bare the secrets the Kosterman family would prefer to keep under wraps – to reach that point he’ll have to pick his way through a maze peopled by a lesbian stripper, an effete drug pusher, a crooked jeweler and blackmailers.

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This was the first of three crime movies director Gordon Douglas would make with Sinatra, the others being Lady in Cement (reprising the Tony Rome character) and The Detective. The latter is clearly the best and most layered of the trio, but Tony Rome is probably the most entertaining. The story derives from a Marvin H Albert novel – a writer whose work I’ve never read despite the fact I’ve seen a few movies now based on his books – and treads a fine line between glamor and seediness, intrigue and humor. Douglas, along with cameraman Joseph Biroc, makes the most of the Florida locations and there are some nicely composed setups (see above) which evoke the look and mood of the classic private eye movie. The plot does become pretty complicated but Douglas keeps the pace even and there’s enough incident to ensure interest never drifts. A good deal of the humor comes via the by-play between Sinatra and Jill St John; although there’s also a glorious, innuendo-laden interlude in Rome’s office, when a frumpy middle-aged woman tries to get him to look into the matter of her depressed pussy and see if he can make it smile again.

Sinatra was well cast as Rome, boozing, smoking and wisecracking his way around Miami and the Keys, mingling effortlessly with both high society and a range of lowlife characters. As a singer he was always capable of going from a buoyant cockiness to almost painful self-awareness, and he brings the same quality to his performance here. The smart, assured dialogue rolls of his tongue as he trades threats and jibes with equal ease, and yet there’s also the honest acceptance of his own weaknesses and failings as a human being. Recently, I’ve been chatting elsewhere about the nature of the detective in crime fiction/filmmaking, and I think Sinatra does well conveying the image of an imperfect but essentially honorable man surrounded by violence and deceit. Jill St John is fine too as the woman looking for a few laughs and finding herself regularly fobbed off as Rome’s investigation takes another interesting turn at just the wrong moment for her. The supporting cast is packed with familiar faces – Simon Oakland, Gena Rowlands, Robert J Wilke, an increasingly exasperated Richard Conte, Jeffrey Lynn, Lloyd Bochner, and cameos for boxer Rocky Graziano and restaurateur Mike Romanoff.

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Tony Rome is a 20th Century Fox production and the DVD form that studio is very good – I have the UK box set containing the three Sinatra/Douglas crime films. The movie is presented in anamorphic scope and comes from a nice clean print, the colors are natural looking and I can’t say I’m aware of any significant damage. The movie itself is a good, solid detective story with a well-judged central performance by Sinatra. In fairness, it’s not the star’s best movie, not even his best with Douglas, but it is a good one, entertaining and engaging from beginning to end. It ought to be more than satisfactory for anyone into mysteries, detective stories or Sinatra.

 

 

The Blue Gardenia

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There are lots of sub-categories within film noir, and one of my favourites is what is sometimes termed nightmare noir. Fritz Lang’s The Blue Gardenia (1953) fits this description by presenting a protagonist whose world gets turned upside down after making one ill-judged decision. This kind of story offers all sorts of opportunities for some of the staple ingredients of noir – paranoia, suspicion, the idea that bad luck is waiting just around the corner, and the fact that the course of one’s life can hinge on something as simple and inocuous as a mix up over a phone call.

Norah Larkin (Anne Baxter) is a switchboard operator who leads a fairly humdrum life, sharing an apartment with two other single women and biding her time till her lover comes back from Korea. However, it doesn’t take long for things to start to unravel and for life to hand her the first in a series of unexpected kicks in the teeth. She’s just bought herself a new dress, cooked a special meal, and plans to sit down and share it with her absent G.I. boyfriend. So, with his photo propped in front of her, she opens his latest telegram and starts to read. It’s a brush off, he’s met a nurse, fallen in love and plans to marry her. Norah is naturally distraught and more than a little bitter, so when she takes a call meant for one of her flatmates she makes that one bad decision. On the rebound, she agrees to a date with the slightly sleazy ladies man Harry Prebble (Raymond Burr). During the course of dinner Prebble ensures that Norah gets well and truly tanked on cocktails before taking her back to his apartment. When he starts to get a little too friendly, Norah struggles with him but quickly blacks out. On awakening, she finds Prebble dead on the floor, his head smashed in with a poker. Panicking, and with only the haziest of memories of what went before, she flees the scene of the crime but leaves a few clues behind. The rest of the movie involves Norah’s attempts to evade the law, while playing a cat and mouse game with smooth newspaperman Casey Mayo (Richard Conte). The only real problem I had with the film was the fact that the element of doubt doesn’t really work for the viewer. While Norah and the characters around her cannot be sure of her guilt or innocence, it’s fairly clear to us. For this kind of story to work properly it’s preferable if the viewer experiences the same level of uncertainty the lead feels.

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Anne Baxter takes centre stage as the haunted and hunted Norah, and does a pretty good job of conveying her mounting sense of paranoia and isolation without resorting to histrionics. Richard Conte is reliable as usual in the role of the reporter who has his doubts. Raymond Burr was still at that stage of his career where he seemed to play nothing but heavies, but he did it well and his Harry Prebble has a nice touch of the sinister about him. However, while those three turned in fine performances, the picture really belongs to Ann Sothern. Her sassy turn as Norah’s seen-it-all-before flatmate is the highlight, and she walks away with just about every scene she appears in. Lang’s direction is as classy as one would expect, and the themes involved are right up his street. He seemed to have a thing for artists and reporters, and both play a prominent part here – although his most biting critique of the media, the ascerbic While the City Sleeps was still a few years down the road. There are strong noir credentials throughout the movie with Vera Caspary (Laura) providing the source material and Nicholas Musuraca working his magic behind the camera – the shadowy shots of the deserted newsroom at night being especially atmospheric.

The R1 DVD from Image is generally quite good, although there are a few damage marks here and there. It’s a totally barebones disc but should be available fairly cheap. The Blue Gardenia was originally distributed by Warner Brothers but is thankfully no longer controlled by them – I couldn’t imagine writing that just a few months ago, but this is the kind of film that might well be consigned to the appalling Archive programme now. All in all, it’s a fine noir that I’m happy to recommend.