Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Black Tuesday (1954)

Black Tuesday was released in 1954 and it showed that Edward G. Robinson - years from playing tough gangsters in "Little Caeser" and even "Key Largo" - could still play a mobster in film and keep his performance fresh and interesting.

The film begins immediately in a prison. Director Hugo Fregonese (Man in the Attic and One Way Street) shows a number of silent prisoners pacing back and forth in their cells. A man breaks the silence and starts singing about death row - the "Black Tuesday Blues" - while keeping rhythm by beating the top of a wooden stool. Finally one of the prisoners has enough and yells for him to shut up. The opening credits flash on the screen over dramatic music and so begins a surprisingly good but mostly forgotten prison escape film starring Robinson, a very young Peter Graves, and Jean Parker.



With the help of a blackmailed prison guard, Robinson escapes on the eve of his own execution with a number of hostages, his fellow death-row inmates (especially Graves who has lots of cash stashed from his crime), and a cub reporter. These scenes showing the complicated prison break are probably the best part of the film.

Once the prisoners get to their hideout the film plays like a filmed stage play (not unlike The Desperate Hours or The Petrified Forest). The film remains suspenseful thanks to a very good supporting cast and Robinson knocking it out of the park playing a truly soulless bad guy. Once the cops surround the convicts safe house the film only gets more tension filled. There's an unlikely romance and some unneeded subplots but that doesn't stop the film from being a lost treasure that every noir fan should try to dig up.

The film was written by Sydney Boehm who also penned the screenplays for High Wall, Rogue Cop, Second Chance and most memorably the cop revenge thriller The Big Heat. Boehm doesn't break any new ground with this one. It's your standard prison-escape drama like many others including Canon City. However, from the complicated escape until the bloody end the film moves nicely. The film was lensed by Stanley Cortez who shows some nice use of shadow and light especially during the prison scenes. Cortez has dozens of movies to his credit and more than a few are excellent noir including Secret Beyond the Door..., The Underworld Story, and Night of the Hunter which came out in theaters a year after this one. Another studio work horse penned the music: Paul Dunlap does a his usual workman like job on the film's soundtrack. Looking at his IMDB page I see he could put out half a dozen film scores a year. Director Fregonese probably deserves the most credit turning what could be a by-the-numbers crime film into an extremely taut thriller.

Most reading probably haven't seen this one. That may be taken care of soon. In 2005 VCI Entertainment announced that they planned to release Black Tuesday on DVD as part of their Kit Parker lost noir series. I contacted VCI and they told me that they still plan on releasing the film but they are currently still sorting out the rights to release the DVD. (edit 2009: no dice. VCI has no plans for releasing it.)

See it anyway you can. It's a great forgotten noir with one of the best performances of Edward G. Robinson's long successful career slipping easily back into a bad guy role.

Written by Steve-O

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Money Madness (1948)


'Money Madness' (1948) Hugh Beaumont (Steve) Frances Rafferty (Julie) Cecil Weston (Aunt Cora) Harlan Warde (Attorney)

Leave it to Ward Cleaver. With a few deft strokes, he can ; stash the 200K he stole from a bank (and his cohorts) ; land a low-key hack job ; woo and marry a lovely and unsuspecting young soda jerk ; and manipulate his way to financial freedom - all in the few short weeks following his arrival in town on the noon bus (and a very ill wind).

In this lean and efficient programmer from the middle of the cycle, Beaumont impresses as moody crook-on-the-lam Steve Clark (an alias). Desperate to construct a front that will deceive the authorities and disgruntled fellow thugs alike - he blows into a strange town and rapidly spins the tangled web he deems necessary.

Meeting and marrying an unhappy young local (whose shrewish battle axe of an Aunt has made home-life less than idyllic) in order to appear domesticated - and to use her home for ill-gotten-gains-storage (the dough will double as 'family inheritance'). Steve has dotted all of his I's - even informing his new bride (in a truly chilling exchange) of his scheme before telling her that legally she can't testify against her unbalanced beau.

The viewer's heart breaks for poor Julie - whose ray of hope has proven to be toxic. Our frazzled heroine having to maintain an even strain during the subsequent onslaught of nosy neighbors, amorous attorneys, and too-close-for-comfort-cops. Steve's hair-trigger temper and coiled violence an ever-present reminder to stay tight-lipped. Despite her compliance, Steve's luck rapidly runs out..

Director Peter Stewart shows no visual flair, but knows how to keep things moving - and draws strong performances from his perfectly-cast leads. As the dupe du jour, fresh-faced Frances Rafferty delivers a natural and quietly assured performance - holding her own with the more seasoned cast members. Beaumont's pallet of moods and tones proves rewarding - especially upon multiple viewings. His confident sociopath being one of noir's many under appreciated turns.


Written by Dave


Monday, May 14, 2007

Kiss of Death (1947)

Dir. Henry Hathaway

As our film begins a narrator informs us over the opening shots of a bustling Manhattan that, “Christmas eve in New York a happy time for some people; the lucky ones. Last minute shopping, presents for the kids, hurry home to light the tree and fill the stockings… for the lucky ones. Others aren’t so lucky.” Here we are introduced to Nick Bianco (Victor Mature) a former jail-bird, trying to fly the straight and narrow. After a year of his prison record impeding his efforts to get a legit job, we see Nick and a few cohorts enter a jeweler’s office and rob them because, “this is how Nick goes Christmas shopping for his kids.” Nick gets caught at the end of this tense scene where he is seconds away from eluding the police who have been tipped off to the burglary. As he is about to escape their grasp, into the streets of New York, when a cop shoots him in the leg, dropping him to the ground and ensuring his Christmas will be spent at the graybar hotel. The narrator informs us that this event mirrors the fate of Nick’s father who died twenty years earlier with a policeman’s bullet in his back. He was escaping from a robbery he just committed when young Nick witnessed his father’s death and sadly enough it was one of his earliest memories. When the violins die down Nick is looking at plenty jail time but he has a way out.

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Assistant D.A. Louis D’Angelo (Brian Donlevy) is a family man who tells Nick that if he sings about the failed heist, he can get out of serving time in the big cage. But Bianco is no canary and refuses to talk even when D’Angelo tries to push his guilt buttons about his two young daughters growing up without their dad. The Assistant D.A. believes that Nick is a good guy at heart and tries to give him a way to avoid incarceration. We see Nick’s wheels turn at the prospect and persuasion put forth by D’Angelo, but Nick is old school and decides to do his time with his mouth shut.

Three years into doing his bit in the joint, Nick finds out that his wife has killed herself by sticking her head in a gas oven because of financial worries and her drinking too much. Upon hearing the news Nick wants to get out and take care of his kids who have landed in an orphanage. In prison he gets a visit from Nettie (Coleen Gray) a young woman who used to take care of his daughters and quit and moved away before Nick’s wife treated her melon like a bundt cake. Nettie and Nick have a connection and he asks her to keep tabs on his daughters.

Beside himself with guilt and concern for his daughters, Nick decides to cut a deal with D’Angelo and give up his crew. Unfortunately this is where Nick must cross paths again with Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark). Tommy and Nick had met before when Nick was being sentenced and they wound up in the same cell for little while. Tommy expressed to Nick his surprise at being behind bars noting, “Imagine me in here. Big man like me gettin’ picked up just for shoving a guy’s ears off his head. Traffic ticket stuff.” With that statement we understand Tommy’s idea of a moving violation differs drastically from yours and mine. Tommy Udo proves it later when he has to silence a potential informer and ends up lashing the stoolie’s mother to her wheelchair with an electrical cord and proceeds to push her tumbling down a flight of stairs. Cementing his dark disposition Udo gives his legendary creepy cackle at the sight of his maternal manhandling.



Under the guidance of D’Angelo, Nick purposely bumps into and pretends to be pals with Udo to get some dirt on him for the Assistant D.A. The plan works and the D.A.’s office is taking Tommy to trial for murder, Nick testifies against him and everything seems rosy. Nick and Nettie have gotten married, he has a regular job and a new identity. His daughters are finally out of the orphanage, living with the newlyweds and happily improving their roller-skating skills on a daily basis. The picture can’t get any more perfect until the frame they try to hang on Tommy Udo doesn’t take and his slick shyster manages to get Tommy acquitted of the charges he faced. Now Nick has the psychopath Tommy Udo gunning for him and his family. While he wants to help Nick, the assistant D.A. can only wait for Tommy to violate his parole in order to get him off the streets. That may be too little too late for Nick, Nettie and the girls with a lunatic like Udo looking for payback. Nick sends Nettie and the girls packing to the country and decides to take care of Tommy Udo himself. At this point the cat and mouse game between Nick and Tommy plays out with both parolees having to tread carefully under the watchful eye of D’Angelo.

This movie is entertaining overall but not much else in terms of the film as a whole. I don’t feel like director Henry Hathaway covered any unique ground or brought anything original to the table with this picture. He had already incorporated filming in actual locations and quasi-documentary style with his previous work The House on 92nd Street and would do the same (with more effectiveness) a year after Kiss of Death with Call Northside 777.” The movie looks fine and there is some nice editing in several key scenes such as the opening heist, Udo’s wheelchair pushing scene and the ending that nicely bolster the tension. The script is solid but lacks some flair or panache leaving it seeming a little flat in places. While there are some great lines, I honestly expected more from writers Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer who between them have written such gems as “Notorious” “Spellbound” “His Girl Friday” “Mutiny on the Bounty” “The Thing from Another World” and “Oceans Eleven” just to name a few (Even more impressive is Hecht’s uncredited contributions to many scripts over several decades. Check out his imdb page and be in awe). All that being said, the performances of Mature and Widmark are the elements that make this movie stand out from the pack.

Victor Mature is truly effective in his role as Nick Bianco as he can balance a believable hood with a genuine guy who is motivated by his kids to straighten up from his crooked ways. It could have been played very sappy (especially in the scenes with the saccharine sweet little girls) but Mature nicely acts out the role and not the dramatic story. The result is a performance that elicits just the right mix of sympathy and compassion for his character. His wistful eyes also seal the deal when necessary too. Perfect casting and acting combined for the crucial role of our protagonist Nick.

If I had to choose one reason to recommend watching this film it’s definitely the screen debut of Richard Widmark as Tommy Udo. His performance is outstanding, as he doesn’t so much give you the creeps as he force-feeds them to you. Udo is a perfect storm of menace, sadist and sociopath. Widmark commands every scene he’s in with such a forceful presence and performance that as the film continues, you find yourself just waiting for him to appear. He also gets some classic lines such as telling a cop fishing for info that he wouldn’t give him “the skin off a grape.” Without Victor Mature’s understated performance Widmark’s Udo may have lost some of his effectiveness by seeming too over the top or out of place contrasted by a less convincing Nick Bianco. The two portrayals, however, balance each other perfectly and create a solid foundation of tension and excitement for this otherwise moderate noir.

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Written by Tim (aka - Mappin and Webb Ltd.)


Saturday, May 12, 2007

Street of Chance (1942)

Written by Paulcito

Summertime, New York City, 1942. You're walking down the street when a load of falling beams comes tumbling down, knocking you into inky blackness, robbing you of the last year of your life but restoring your memory prior to that time -- you're on the street of chance now, baby. Welcome to the life of Frank Thompson, and welcome to the granddaddy of noir amnesia films.

Street of Chance was the first Cornell Woolrich suspenser to be adapted for film and is based on the novel The Black Curtain. This early film noir has the trademark Woolrich incoherent dread but is a film ultimately more rewarding for its devices than taken straight as a crime thriller. Silver and Ward note that the film "establishes a number of conventions that later helped to define film noir" and it is those conventions that make it a worthy NOTW and mark it as noir canon material. The poster is a beaut, too.


(* THIS REVIEW HAS SPOILERS *)





Burgess Meredith stars as accountant Frank Thompson, who recovers suddenly from an amnesiac period after a cartoon-perfect load of construction debris falls on top of him. He comes to, puzzled to find himself carrying a cigarette case and hat with the initials D.N and everything changed. Seems old Frank had this happen once before, a whole year earlier, walking out on his wife Virginia (Louise Platt) and his secure job with no word to anyone. So now Frank hunts down his wife, living in new digs, wins her back, and returns to his number-crunching job as if nothing had transpired, convincing his employer his absence was due to a nervous breakdown. (Think I'll try that one).

But fate has further plans: the first day back on his old job, he is followed by unknown toughs and realizes he must discover the truth behind his missing year. He sends the wife packing to her parents' house while he wanders New York hoping someone will recognize him. The black curtain begins to rise after he is reunited with moll Ruth Dillon (Claire Trevor) and all is slowly revealed: his alter-ego self is named Dan Nearing and has Ruthie as a financee. But whatta dowry: Nearing is wanted by Detective Joe Marucci (an extremely watchable Sheldon Leonard) for the murder of Ruth's employer, one Harry Diedrich. As Marucci closes in, Thompson ends up at the Diedrich mansion, where he realizes that bed-ridden, speechless Grandma Diedrich can save him by revealing the real killer. Grannie blinks out the truth: it was Ruthie who did the deed and set him up. Frank confesses his amnesia to her at last and his real identity. Ruth, cornered, forces a showdown at gunpoint and Frank is narrowly saved by Marucci; Ruth, who takes the bullet, confesses all before dying and Frank is free once more.

The plot device of a wounded protagonist, suffering from amnesia or other mental illness, went on in later films to become a staple of noir characterization, usually underscoring the psychoses of a wounded war veteran. Film noir is full to staggering with woozy vets: think Buzz in the The Blue Dahlia, Eddie Rice in The Crooked Way, John Hodiak's George Taylor in Somewhere in the Night, Jim Fletcher in The Clay Pigeon, Robert Taylor's Steve Kenet in High Wall or even the doctor in Hitchcock's quasi-noir Spellbound. In the later issuances, amnesia is shorthand for all that ails American society: the uncertainty of a world revealed in its amorality, the post-war hangover that won't let up.

But in Street of Chance, as an earlier, prototype noir, we see something different. Unlike later forays into the wounded unconscious, for unlucky Frank Thompson, it is simple chance that intervenes and not wartime trauma. Fate delivers an uncertain destiny, knocking Frank for a loop at the receiving end of a load of lumber.

Street of Chance hints at more than the danger of being out of control, it hints at fate's promise as well. A closer look at Frank's actions support this reading, which the audience, if not Frank himself, can take: After his first escape from Detective Marucci, Frank doesn't share his worry with wife Virginia, and there is a furtiveness to his denials to her that belie the simpler view that he simply doesn't want to worry her, that he just suffers from a fear of the unknown. His attentions to her after the lost time are remarkably chaste. He wanders New York aloof and alone, searching for his other self. After meeting femme fatale Ruthie, she taunts him: "Aren't you going to kiss me?", and his assent, though restrained, signals an ambiguous morality that predominated later noirs. Although Thompson is clearly no murderer, and his innocence is essential to the plot, there is a perverse message that he might in part have liked his other life as Nearing and more importantly, the opportunities afforded by chance to start over, begin again. This makes his exoneration at film's end, the return to Virginia, noirishly bittersweet. We can take a vicarious thrill in the secret, second life, the duality of Thompson's good self versus bad. Burgess Meredith brings to the part an understated, everyman air that is just enough of a cipher that although we can believe he really just wants to return to his old, safe life, we admit, in whispered tones, perhaps not.


Sam Spade, in Dashiell Hammett's 1930 novel the Maltese Falcon, famously tells an anecdote which is strikingly similiar to the accident Woolrich spins for Frank Thompson. Hammett recounts the story of a missing man who leaves his family in Tacoma and starts over with a new wife after narrowly avoiding some falling beams, near-death shattering his complacency. The lesson for Spade, and in Street of Chance, is the same: the randomness of life compels panic. Spade sums it up nicely: "He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling." The street of chance is one treacherous road.

The film has one other odd touch contributed by Woolrich's imagination. In the climax at the mansion, Frank's fate is determined by Grandma Diedrich (it was Grandpa in the book). As mother of the man he is supposed to have killed and a mute invalid, she makes a twisted choice of saviour. Frank's urgent efforts to get Granny to finger the real murderer by an eyeblink code demonstrate brilliantly the fragile thread on which his escape from a darker fate hangs.

Stylistically, the film is mostly lighter fare. Director Jack Hively, better known for his Saint pictures, allows for a voiceover and some occasional flashes of black humor, but there are relatively few visual cues to lend to the noirness of the film. There are moments of a darker city, such as a cabbie's offer to ferry Thompson and his wife "round the park for two bucks", mistaking the matrimony for something more lustful, but these touches are few. Cinematographer Theo Sparkuhl, responsible also for camerawork on Among the Living and The Glass Key, provides just enough expressionistic flair to serve the film. The use of enclosed space and linear framing provides some inspired moments, such as Frank's flashbacks playing out on roll-down window shades, but not enough to make this film really memorable. David Buttolf provides a jazz score that is among the first in crime films, but overall it is restrained and does little to heighten the anxiety.

I am not aware of current plans to restore this film or offer it on DVD in the near future, but Eddie Muller indicated in a 2005 interview that the UCLA Film & Television Archive has a 35mm copy in inventory, so a restored print might yet happen. As a cornerstone early noir and a Woolrich film, that would be very welcome.

For an amusing but light adaptation of The Black Curtain, I recommend a late-night listen to Cary Grant as Frank Thompson in the radio serial version from the program Suspense, freely available at OTR.NET, Suspense Episode #12.


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