Monday, May 29, 2006

The Right Hand of the Devil (1963)

*Spoilers in summary - not in review*

Urbane criminal mastermind Pepe Lusara breezes into Los Angeles and promptly rents a dilapidated mansion from a puzzled realtor. It will serve as both temporary lair and meeting site for the crew of thieves he'll soon employ to assist him.

Following an edgy encounter with Williams (Brad Trumbull), the career crook instructed to corral the other professionals needed, Lusara alone begins a series of mysterious late-night robberies - in which the commodity stolen is a steaming, toxic acid.

When the L.A. sports arena is selected as the most desirable of several possible targets, the thickly-accented lothario follows the venue's middle-aged cashier Elizabeth (Lisa McDonald) into a local watering hole, where he charms her off her feet - and into a motel.

An affair begins, and while a deeply smitten Elizabeth brushes up on her technique by consulting 'The Modern Sex Manual' - Williams finds and recruits three-time losers 'Spooky', Carter, and Sammy for the heist.

Tempers flare at the team's initial meeting - but just as the caper's kinks are ironed out, and Lusara secures the last drop of acid he needs, Elizabeth throws her lover a curve and offers him the keys to the arena's cash - claiming to have been on to him from the start. Gushing false humility, Lusara promises to squire her around Mexico with the ill-gotten gains.

With the aid of an 'inside person' the heist goes smoothly - but as the men leave a gently bound and gagged Elizabeth behind and high-tail it to the getaway car, Carter takes a painful fall and spills his bag of loot. Enraged, Lusara shoots him in the face before scooping up the bills and speeding away with the others. A car switch and a bit of comical cross-dressing insure their anonymity.

Back at the mansion the men surround a table covered with cash, anxiously awaiting the split - but Lusara insists they first raise a celebratory glass. Having been slipped 'mickeys', Spooky and Sammy collapse while a furious and apparently immune Williams lunges at his back-stabbing boss. Lusara unloads several shots into him before dragging the dying man into the bathroom - and submerging him in a tub filled with stolen acid.

Disguised as an aging cripple, Lusara drives his exited ex-cashier south of the border - refilling her cocktail glass so often she passes out on the way. While she's unconscious he pulls the car over, douses it in flammable liquid, and pushes it over a seaside cliff - confident he's now tied all loose ends as he watches the flaming convertible hurtle down.

Fade in - Rio de Janeiro - some time later. One night after some hard partying with two lovely young local girls, a goateed Lusara passes out in his hotel room - and suffers through feverish flashbacks of his many vicious murders. When he wakes, the girls and his money are gone.

Back in L.A. with a brand new look, Lusara returns to the bar where he first seduced
Elizabeth, and finds that he still has 'it' when he lures a mysterious barfly away from her drink - and into a motel room. Waiting until the two are alone, the woman chillingly transforms into an angel of death - removing her disguise and revealing herself to be a horribly scarred Elizabeth! Packing heat and seeing red, she grazes him with a bullet - then kicks off a prosthetic leg at her shocked would-be murderer. A second shot hits Lusara in the head, sending him staggering out into the night, only to collapse in a nearby gutter.

For years it wasn't any more than a hazy mirage on the noir landscape - but this Nouvelle Vague-influenced obscurity is thankfully now trickling into availability - and this fan means to expedite the flow. Essentially an exercise in low-budget/drive-in sleaze filmmaking, 'RHOTD' is the brainchild of one-man-band (writer/director/editor/makeup/star) Aram Katcher - a nondescript actor of Armenian origin who not unlike the character he plays, deftly pulls off an unlikely coup.

Though a bit self-aware at times, this briskly-paced and hard-edged neo-noir should come as a welcome discovery to fans of the sub-genre. Consistently entertaining and sensibly short, it is without a single recognizable face or name in the credits - yet despite some technical shortcomings (poor sound, rough editing), 'Right Hand of the Devil' boldly rises above it's budget restrictions to reach a respectable level of artistic achievement - snugly fitting within the lineup of other harsh 60's noirs ('Brainstorm' and 'Point Blank' among them). As in those films, the atmosphere in 'Right Hand' is thick with illicit sex, psychosis, and hair-trigger violence.

Well-suited for those wee-hours cult screenings with friends - when different standards are employed - 'RHOTD' is, in this fan's estimation, a minor classic. A rough, uncut gem that just may outshine many a more well-known noir thriller.

Written by Dave

Monday, May 22, 2006

Born to Kill (1947)

Posted by Karen

Born to Kill is one of those noirs that I keep in my pocket like the last peppermint. Sometimes I forget about it, but I'm so pleased when I run across it, because it's just so good.

Born to Kill tells the story of Helen Brent (Claire Trevor) and Sam Wild (Lawrence Tierney), who meet on a train platform on their way to San Francisco. Helen is returning home after her divorce; Sam is hightailing it out of town after murdering his girlfriend and the man he found her with. Although Helen is engaged to one of Frisco's wealthiest eligible bachelors, she is strongly attracted to Sam, who ingratiates himself into her family when they reach San Francisco, and winds up marrying Helen's affluent foster sister, Georgia (Audrey Long). Over the course of the film, Sam continues to pile up corpses -- he kills his best friend, Marty (Elisha Cook, Jr.), after mistakenly suspecting him of having an affair with Helen, and he winds up fatally shooting Helen as well, just before he himself is shot and killed by police.

This film is fairly brimming with a melange of quirky, unforgettable characters. Among these are Laury Palmer (Isabel Jewell), a comely boardinghouse dweller who provides instant insight into her personality when she describes her new boyfriend, Sam, to her landlady: "He's the quiet sort, but you get the feeling that if you got out of line, he'd kick your teeth down your throat." Laury says these words not with a sense of fear or dismay, but with a look of rapturous admiration on her face. Her landlady, Mrs. Kraft (Esther Howard) obviously shares the feeling, as she sighs plaintively and responds, "My, ain't that wonderful. I never knew a man like that. My two husbands was just turnips." Unfortunately for Laury, Sam is no turnip. After he spots her at a nightclub with another man, he murders them both in a jealous rage.


It is Helen, incidentally, who finds the bodies of Laury and her date. However, her natural reaction is not to recoil in terror, or scream, or faint. She doesn't even utter a gasp or alter her facial muscles to wince in disgust. She also doesn't trouble herself to report the crime to the police. Instead, she softly closes the door on the horrific scene and telephones the train station for a schedule of outgoing freights. As she later explains to her sister, Georgia, "it's a lot of bother -- coroner's inquests and all that sort of stuff."

Unlike most noir films featuring these immoral femmes, Born to Kill, at least to some degree, provides insight into Helen's past. Adopted by a wealthy family, she apparently never felt that she truly belonged. Her sister's subsequent sole inheritance of the family fortune only served to deepen Helen's bitter sense of inadequacy, and heighten her resolve to become independent through her own means -- hence her engagement to a San Francisco attorney, Fred Grover (Phillip Terry), whom she views as "goodness and safety."

Born to Kill was based on the book, "Deadlier Than the Male," by James Gunn, an obvious reference to the black widow spider, who mates with, then devours her male counterpart. The analogy provides an fitting representation of Helen -- although she is attracted to Sam, her compulsion to destroy him is evidenced in a number of ways. In one scene, she subtly lets a private detective know that Sam may be connected to the double murder in Reno--in another, she sides against Sam in his bid to run the family business. And finally, it is Helen who tells Georgia about the murders that Sam has committed and notifies the police.

It's also worth noting that there seems to be a shred -- albeit a tiny one -- of decency within Helen, a part of her that realizes the kind of person she has become and wants desperately to change. She tells Sam that, to her, Fred represents peace and security. "Without him, I'm afraid of the things I'll do, afraid of what I might become," she admits. "Fred is goodness and safety." And later, when Fred breaks their engagement, Helen begs him to stay. "If you leave me, I haven't a chance," she tells him. But Fred leaves her nonetheless--he isn't up to the task of saving Helen from herself.

In many films of this era, one character is cunningly guided by another into the land of deceit and murder, not realizing until it is too late that he or she has been victimized. In Born to Kill, however, Helen knows from her first glimpse of Sam that he represents danger, and it doesn't take her long to deduce that he is a murderer. Yet, this knowledge only heightens her excitement and increases her desire to be a part of his life. She willingly goes into his dark world and when she finds herself mortally wounded by his gunshot, can only state with a sense of irony, "Fred was right . . . this time I didn't land on my feet."

Monday, May 15, 2006

Criss Cross (1949)

Posted by Gary George
MEMO from the desk of MARK HELLINGER...
To: Robert Siodmak
Subject: Burt's next film

Dear Bob,

This is in regard to a follow-up film to your success with The Killers. I now have a script from a 1935 novel by Don Tracy, titled CRISS CROSS, that I believe will fill the bill. Burt Lancaster owes me a third picture according to our contract, and he is on-board, but at this juncture, Ava may be a problem.

Please meet with me at your earliest convenience to further discuss additional details.

The above note is in reality all supposition on my part. I've found documentation in several places that mentions the fact that Mark Hellinger began working on Criss Cross while completing The Naked City, and just before he died of a heart attack at the age of 44. By most accounts, screenwriter Daniel Fuchs was given only a very basic, verbal version of Hellinger's vision for the film.

I've always found Hellinger's choice of source material for what became Criss Cross very the November 2003 issue of FIRSTS (a book collectors magazine), there is an article by Kevin Johnson titled SOME TOUGH NOIRS... detailing several of the books made into films noir. From the article:

"Criss Cross was Don Tracy's first book... published in 1934... Tracy was a regular contributor to the pulps of the 30's and 40's...his first four novels were all noirs. The book is, in the words of The Mysterious bookshop's Otto Penzler, "pretty bad." With clunky dialouge, racist overtones and a very dated style, it seems hard to believe that Criss Cross could have become such an important film. Partial credit belongs to Don Tracey, whose personal experiences resulted in the story's interesting content. Tracy worked both as a guard on an armored car and as a night-club manager, professions that figure heavily in the progression of the story. Criss Cross (the book) is far from sublime, and it's certainly no masterpiece." What I find most interesting...why and how did Hellinger choose the little known Tracy novel from FIFTEEN YEARS prior...especially if it was as bad as the article makes it sound? Regardless, screenwriter Daniel Fuchs more than did his part to turn the book into a film noir masterpiece, with some of the most snappy dialogue in the canon. There is a very telling line, issued by Edna Holland (playing Burt's mother, and talking about her former daughter-in-law)..."In some ways she knows more than Einstein," that should be a tip-off to things to come in the film, but is so artfully done that doesn't give anything away. The script also has bits of humor, which is unusual for noir, and especially for a film this bleak in theme...there is a very funny bit done at "The Roundup," a bar where much of the action takes place. Film foir fan favorite Percy Helton really has it working when he asks Burt Lancaster about being a "checker" for the state liquor board."
Regardless of how Hellinger, Fuchs, and Siodmak got Criss Cross from book form to the screen, this is THE FILM NOIR that I recommend to all noir neophytes as the place to start, even though it is number two on my list of great ones (Out of the Past being first, but a more difficult watch for the newbie). From the incredible opening aerial shot (perfected by the very fine director of photography Franz Planer, working arguably at his zenith here), where the camera takes a night-time look at Los Angeles before zooming in on our doomed protagonist and his femme fatale (Burt and Robert Siodmak)...well, you just know that you're in for something very special.

I don't usually summarize film plots in my NOTW, as I find it to easy to give away plot points and inadvertently include spoilers. In the case of Criss Cross, the actual plot really isn't what is so fascinating...the real story is about love, betrayal, obsession, and fate...all of the things that make for the best films noir. I will mention that there is a robbery, but saying that Criss Cross is about a robbery is like saying The Godfather is about organized crime. All of this is not to say that Criss Cross doesn't have an interesting plot-it does-and the actual robbery secquence is very well handled by master noir director Robert Siodmak...but there is soooo much more going on here. At about fourteen minutes into the film a flashback occurs, and that goes on for well over an hour. Not long after we're returned to real time, there is a scene in a hospital that is a tense as anything in the best of Val Lewton's work!

The cast of Criss Cross is a virtual "who's who" of film noir, with easily recognizable faces throughout. It has been said in some reviews that Burt Lancaster, as "the prize sucker of all time" was miscast...but I heartily disagree. This may well be his best work in film noir, and after doing 8 noirs in a row, it was his last until 1957.

Apparently, Ava Gardner, who found stardom along with Burt in The Killers, was considered for the part of Anna in Criss Cross...and the reason she wasn't used is a bit unclear. Shelly Winters was also a strong contender for the role...however, I will remain eternally grateful to the Gods of casting that Yvonne De Carlo landed the role. I can't imagine anyone bettering her work here...her sexy, offbeat good looks and combination of sweet and tough are just perfect for Anna. I would be tough to argue that this is not the high water mark of DeCarlo's acting career, although she went on to work for many more years. In my opinion, Ava would have been far to imperious for this part, and Shelly Winters far too trampy. One of the top acting scenes in the film have Yvonne's Anna showing in-love Burt the bruises that her husband has given her...a move that seals the deal of doom for Burt. This scene is VERY reminiscent of one in Human Desire, with Gloria Grahame and Glenn Ford, done a few years later by Fritz Lang.

Dan Duryea, as the gangster de jour, hits many high notes in a role he was born to play...although after this most recent look at the film, I realize that he didn't have as much screen time as I had remembered (this is a tribute to Duryea, an actor who always made the most out of any part he played). A note should be made here about the wardrobe in Criss Cross...this is the film with the COOLEST CLOTHES in all of film noir! Duryea wears the hell out of that white tie on black shirt look that later became de riguer for all gangsters of the fifties. Burt only wears a suit and tie in the beginning of the film, opting instead for a very sharp black turtleneck and THE GREATEST JACKET IN FILM NOIR HISTORY! No kidding, this two-tone, belted number sported here by Lancaster is, imo, the most standout piece of wardrobe in all of film noir. Along with this casual, working class neighborhood look, Yvonne De Carlo is actually seen wearing slacks (and how!), which is something I can't recall seeing on any other woman in film noir.

Continuing with the character actors in Criss Cross, I mentioned earlier the great work here of Percy Helton, who steals several of his scenes. In a very famous cameo, an unbilled Tony Curtis is seen dancing (very "gigolo-like") with Yvonne DeCarlo in an early scene. Stephen McNally is fine in a small but important part as a cop who is really responsible for setting things in motion in the plot. Alan Napier (who later played Alfred on tv's BATMAN)is fun to watch here as the "mastermind" of the crime. John Doucette and Tom Pedi, with their distinct voices and recognizable mugs, get to utter more than just their usual few inconsequential lines, and they stand-out as Duryea's henchmen.

Criss Cross is also a very historic film, in the sense that it shows many Los Angeles locales as they were in the late 1940's...most notably, Angels Flight and Bunker Hill (both now gone, I believe), and a great look at Union Station as it was then. There is also a fun bit of dialogue between two characters discussing the price of groceries at the local market that should give those familiar with current prices pause...not to mention several indications of the nickel phone call and .25 cent beer.

I'll finish up here, appropriately enough, with a few lines on the end of the film...and staying with my edict to give the least amount of spoilers possible, all I will say is that it is in my top two favorites in all of film noir, and that Fuchs and Siodmak in no way compromised the "noir theme." It is the last two minutes or so where DeCarlo really shines, plainly stating her somewhat bent philosophy on life and love, that really make this ending work. If I have even a remote quibble regarding Criss Cross, it would be that it doesn't feature the usual amount of darkly lit scenes that some of the classic noirs do...but this is total nitpicking on my part. Criss Cross is a great film, in my opinion, and not just a great film noir. As a testament to the quality of Criss Cross, just check out the "remake" The Underneath ('94), filmed by no less a director than Steven Soderbergh. Not a bad film by any means, but not a patch on the original.


Monday, May 08, 2006

Hell is a City (1960)

Looking through the shelves of movie-related books at the local library last year, I stumbled across Hardboiled Hollywood by Max Decharnea British writer and musician. Chapter by chapter, it deals with the adaptation, from books or real-life events, of famous crime films over the years, some noir (In a Lonely Place, The Big Sleep), and some not, or at least not quite (Psycho, Bonnie and Clyde). Although it might not be the definitive source on some of the movies covered, it's a pretty entertaining book that I ended up buying. I'd seen or at least heard of all of the movies covered in the book, with one exception: Hell is a City, a British cop vs. criminal thriller from 1960. It sounded interesting, so when I checked to see if it was on DVD, I was happy to find out that it had been released by Anchor Bay a couple of years ago, and that the disc had gotten good reviews for image and sound quality. To the top of my Netflix queue it went, and when I saw it, my expectations were easily fulfilled: it's a terrific movie!

Hell is a City was based on a mid '50s novel of the same name by Maurice Procter, a former Manchester policeman turned writer. Hammer Films producer Michael Carreras purchased the rights and enlisted director Val Guest to adapt and direct. Guest had directed more than 10 films for Hammer by that point, including one of their first international horor/sci-fi successes, The Quatermass Xperiment. Although most of Hammer's low-budget projects were done entirely on sets, Hell is a City used real locations in and around Manchester for many of its scenes. Here's a pretty much spoiler-free plot synopsis:

As the movie begins, Manchester Police Inspector Harry Martineau (played by Stanley Baker) has just read the news of a jailbreak from a different part of the country by Don Starling (John Crawford), whom Martineau had put behind bars several years earlier. Starling might be headed back to town to recover the loot from a big jewel heist, which hasn't turned up since. Martineau is having trouble at home with his clingy wife (Maxine Audley), while the divorced barmaid "Lucky" Lusk (Vanda Godsell) is constantly throwing herself at him. Martineau informs Lucky of Starling's escape, and since she used to be romantically involved with Starling, Martineau warns her not to help him if he turns up.

Starling's arrival in town immediately leads to his rounding up a small gang to snatch some money being transported by underlings of bookmaker Gus Hawkins (Donald Pleasence), since Starling needs a quick score to round up enough cash to leave the country. He's also going to make off with the jewels from years earlier, though he doesn't let any of his compatriots know where they are. Starling mainly organizes the job with muscle, more Dix Handley than Doc Riedenschneider. The robbery ends up being more violent than they planned for, after which Starling gets in touch with some old contacts looking for a place to hide out for the night, issuing threats along the way: Lucky Lusk gets a call, as does "Furnisher" Steele, a furniture salesman who lives with his daughter Silver, a deaf mute since birth. Steele had "shopped" Starling to the cops several years earlier, but Starling seems to accept the fact that Steele won't be doing him any favors this time around, no matter what he might threaten them with. Starling eventually hides out with another old flame, Chloe Hawkins (Billie Whitelaw), the wife of bookmaker Gus, a high society woman of easy virtue who appears to be able to make men melt with baby talk.

Through a series of clues centering on the green dye that the stolen money was laced with, Martineau closes in on the Starling gang, dealing with tight-lipped people who seem to have relevant information by issuing his own threats: the exposure of Chloe Hawkins' various dalliances, a business-damaging police presence at a bartender's pub, and a murder charge against a hood's presumably innocent younger brother. One set piece highlight centers around a "tossing school" on the moors outside of Manchester, a gathering of various mugs getting together to gamble illegally on coin flips. As Starling's associates go down one by one, he makes his way back to the hiding place for the jewels, ready to leave town...but will an innocent bystander give him up? Will Martineau get there in time?

Briskly paced, with some rough violence and an excellent up-tempo jazz score by Stanley Black, Hell is a City features strong performances from the entire cast and great direction by Guest, particularly in its use of locations. The domestic squabbling scenes between Martineau and his wife seem a little forced to me, although the actors sell it well enough. I really like the chemistry between Baker and Godsell--she comes off as a Joan Blondell type, with a similar "man in his early 30s, woman around 40" dynamic to the Blondell/Power pairing in Nightmare Alley, although this one is a different sort of relationship. Crawford, a Canadian without much of an accent who was a name actor in Britain at the time, doesn't seem too much like a local, even though he's supposed to be (Martineau makes one reference to their having grown up together, gone to the same schools, etc.), but he brings a strong sense of menace to his role. The various supporting characters are all quite memorable as well, particularly Pleasance, playing his character with a fidgety sense of irritation at everything happening around him.

With all that it noir? In my opinion, yes, close enough. In the DVD commentary track, with Guest and Hammer documentarian Ted Newsom, Guest specifically cites The Naked City as a major influence for its documentary style, although he claims that he applied it to a lot of his movies, not just this one similar instance of an urban crime drama. Newsom does mention Asphalt Jungle in connection with the dynamics between the crooks, and although Guest says that there wasn't any deliberate influence from that one, the scenes involving the Starling gang definitely have the feel of an inside look at "The City Under the City." The idea of the thin line between cop and criminal, i.e. "The Narrow Margin" between good and evil, isn't quite as directly developed here as it is in that earlier film, but Martineau's rough tactics leave little doubt that he's always willing to bend the rules.

In summary, Hell is a City is a great thrill ride for anybody inclined toward tales of rough characters, fast dames, and tough-minded cops. I'll wrap up with a few DVD screenshots.

The criminal and his ex-lover:
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The cop and his potential lover:
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The "tossing school," with lookouts on the hills to watch for any bobbies:
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"Silent" scream:
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Written by Haggai
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