Monday, October 29, 2007

The Lineup (1958)

Posted by samspadefan

Despite being cited as noir by almost all of the usual sources, for a noir purist, The Lineup isn’t amongst the first group of films one would think of mentioning as defining the genre. Still, as a crime-thriller from the later part of the noir cycle, it provides enough noir elements (combined with several other aspects to be discussed further on) to satisfy the most diehard noir fan.

The Lineup is based on a 1950’s police procedural TV show of the same name (or also known as San Francisco Beat). One of the half hour episodes from the TV series was expanded as a basis for this film, although I’m unable to track down if Don Siegel, who also helmed one of the episodes from the TV series did the short version that this film was taken from.

The Plot (spoilers apply)

The Lineup starts with a porter at the San Francisco ship terminal snatching a passenger’s bag and tossing it into a waiting cab which then peels off, hitting a truck before then running over a policeman who manages to shoot and kill the cab driver. Right off, the viewer knows they’re set for a rollercoaster ride of a film.

The investigating police uncover that the stolen bag included a hollowed out art sculpture purchased abroad stuffed with a significant amount of high grade heroin. The police eventually determine that an organized crime group is using unsuspecting passengers to mule heroin in souvenirs and then relieving them of their burden once back on US soil.

Meanwhile, the organized crime group has decided not take any chances on losing any more shipments and dispatched experienced, but trigger happy and psychotic, hitman Dancer and his equally eccentric ‘handler’ Julian to intercept the next three shipments. They are met and joined by a young, professional driver McLain .

The first two intercepts go rather smoothly, aside from Dancer losing his cool in killing both mules in his zest to recover the heroin. The problem comes in recovering the heroin from the third passenger - a young girl with the dope stashed in her doll. It seems that she discovered the contraband and used it to ‘powder her doll’s hair’. Knowing that failure to make recovery on all three shipments will cause problems with the syndicate, Julian and Dancer decide to kidnap the little girl and her mother and take them to the drop site to explain the unforeseen predicament.

When Dancer meets with ‘The Man’ (against orders instead of just making the drop as required) at a SF amusement establishment to explain the loss of the heroin, his mounting exasperation and tension again boil over and he ends up killing the mob leader in a sequence that needs to be seen to be fully appreciated.

All the while the police have been closing in on the trio of crooks and their kidnap victims setting off an exciting car chase through the streets and highways of San Francisco. Eventually, the ‘professional’ driving of McLain leaves the killers blocked in on an elevated highway where the police catch up. A now completely unhinged Dancer knocks out McLain, kills Julian and in turn is shot by police before a spectacular fall from the highway onto the streets below.

end spoilers

As mentioned, there is much to recommend about this film that makes it an enjoyable viewing for fans of noir, or film in general.

Director Don Siegel is often thought of as a master of the action film, and his talents are on display here. From the opening shot to the final thrilling chase through San Francisco (predating Bullitt by a decade), Siegel does an admiral job of hooking the viewer and maintaining that level fairly consistently throughout. Some of the scenes tend to play like a knowing nod to noir films of the past, such as the death of the wheelchair bound ‘The Man’ (Kiss of Death) and the aquarium scenes (The Lady from Shanghai).

Throughout the film, Siegel switches the story back and forth between the actions of our trio of criminals and those of the investigating police. While the police portions are rather standard fare, it is the characterization and actions of our criminals that provides the most satisfying portions of the film.

Eli Wallach is best known for his role as Tuco in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, but in 1958 he was relatively unknown aside from a dazzling performance two years earlier in Baby Doll. His characterization of Dancer definitely steals the show here. Dancer is essentially uncultured but wanting to better himself. And although his reputation as a hitman is top-notch, his loss of temper and control leaves a string of bodies in his wake that provides the pursuing police with the clues they need. His ‘handler’ Julian as portrayed by Robert Keith is a woman-hating misogynistic sort who sees Dancer as his pet project. He also has the desire to capture the last words of Dancer’s victims in a little book he carries around with him. I’ve read several interpretations of the Dancer-Julian relationship being a homosexual one and I see some validity in that slant. Rounding out the trio of crooks is the young and self-confident to the point of cockiness driver Sandy McLain played by Richard Jaeckel. Aside from his cockiness, McLain also tends to imbibe more than a driver should. Outside of this core three, ‘The Man’ should also be mentioned. Played by a stone-faced, wheelchair bound Vaughn Taylor, ‘The Man’ exudes danger despite not displaying it physically.

The final point well worth mentioning about this film is its stunning use of San Francisco locations, including several that no longer exist (such as the amusement establishment Sutro’s, which serves as the meeting place for the Man-Dancer confrontation) and provide an excellent historical look at the city. San Francisco is one of my favourite setting places for films and Siegel and SF born cinematographer Hal Mohr (who frequently worked on SF located films) make some of the best uses of the unique locations the city has to offer.

The Lineup is a very satisfying film worth the time of any noir or crime film fan. For those that haven’t already managed to track down a copy, warm up your VCR and mark November 13th on your calendar as TCM will be airing the film as part of guest programmer James Ellroy’s picks.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Missing Women (1951)

Penny Edwards (Claudia), John Alvin (Eddie), James Millican (Hans),
Directed by Philip Ford

"When vicious criminals cross THIS bad-ass bride's threshold - it's time to settle the score!" So might read the lurid poster for a trashy 70s remake of 'Missing Women' - an engrossing and likable 'B' thriller that though misleadingly titled represents a refreshing twist on the 'undercover peril' noir sub-sub-genre.

Married just an hour, young Claudia and Philip Rankin's blessed bond is violently severed when they are jumped by car thieves along a dark roadside. Suffering both an unwanted kiss and subsequent sucker-punch to the face by vile thug 'Hans', a dazed Claudia enlists a passerby to send help for Philip who lay dying nearby from the gunshot wound he sustained while attempting to defend his new bride.

Seemingly disinterested in sitting idly by or in letting the authorities do what they're paid to, Claudia chooses to navigate the dangerous waters of the underworld on her own - insinuating herself into 'the life' with an alias, a dye job, some vampy clothes, and a couple contact names remembered from police files she was shown. Locating and coming face to face with Hans and co. will be risky, but Claudia is now single-minded of purpose.

Not unlike the 'Kansas' character in Siodmak's Phantom Lady ('44), Claudia Rankin morphs from girl-next-door into intrepid justice-seeker - in the name of love, and with nary the bat of an eyelash. Lingering close-ups of her face as she tosses and turns in bed - the notion of launching her own amateur investigation weighing heavily upon her mind - would've fleshed things out nicely, but simply aren't included. Low budgets mean streamlined screenplays, and 'Missing Women' wastes no time in setting the stage for no frills-thrills - it's fresh-faced, soft-spoken leading lady bringing an endearing blend of pluck and vulnerability to the role of a shell-shocked widow who vanishes from society (hence the title) to re-invent herself as pre-Charles Bronson avenging angel.


Written by Dave

Monday, October 15, 2007

The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)

Posted by HJ

Scott Carey (Grant Williams) is a successful young man of his time. He has an attractive and loving wife, Louise , and is enjoying a day out at sea in a cabin cruiser. Suddenly they encounter a wall of strange-looking fog, which envelops Scott but not Louise, who is in the cabin of the boat. Shortly thereafter he notices that his clothes appear to be getting too large for him, and begins losing weight, not precipitously, but steadily. (I should be so lucky!)

After a short time, when this loss of height and weight becomes noticeable and very worrisome, he goes to his family doctor, who recommends more aggressive testing procedures. Alas, the results are not good. Something has affected his metabolism and bodily processes. His plight becomes an unwilling "media event," and unwelcome loss of privacy and anonymity accompanies this. At this point, the movie could have developed into a "bug-eyed green monster" flick of the 1950s, but instead writer of both novel and screenplay Richard Matheson decided to craft a rather "Noirish" little sci-fi flick.

Some of the ramifications of loss of height and weight are explored quite well.. (I mean, you can only treat so much in an 81-minute movie!) His wife remains dutiful and loving throughout, although the loss of physical companionship is treated symbolically when his wedding ring falls off his diminished third finger, left hand. The set is equipped with over-sized furniture, and the difference in his stature as compared with his wife's is handled rather skillfully considering the special effects available in 1956-57. But eventually Louise requires some semblance of a "real" life, which fans paranoia on Scott's part. He decides to go for a late-night ramble and ends up meeting a "little person" named Clarice, who attempts to give him some insight on his new status as a human being much smaller than his contemporaries. No extramarital relationship results from the encounter with this "other woman," but her advice helps equip Scott for his new life.

At this point, the medical community announces that it has found a treatment that can, at least, arrest his shrinking. Things begin to look up for Scott, who even dares to dream that he can be restored to his former stature and resume a "regular" life. But cruel reality sets in, and his loss of size resumes.

Eventually he becomes so small that he has to live in a doll house, and is menaced by the family cat, who has gone from a normal-sized friendly tabby to a huge feral beast in Scott's eyes. One evening when Louise leaves for a nightly walk, the cat attacks Scott, and he is forced to flee to the basement stairway, from which he falls into a container of rags in the basement. When Louise returns to find the doll house ravaged and no Scott, she assumes that the house cat has made a meal of her diminutive husband. She is heartbroken, and decides to sell the house and resume her life.

Well, I'm NOT going to screw this up with SPOILERS, so let's just say that Scott's adjustment to life in the basement and the contents thereof makes up the last half of the movie, and features some more excellent (for the era) Special Effects. It's also a very NOIR existence!

So right now you're probably wondering what is Noir about this movie. Well, if you consider Don Malcolm's Noir Elements list (and I did!), I come up with 119 points out of 200 for this film. There is alienation, a Fall Guy, paranoia, violence, unusual film techniques, flashbacks and voice-overs, fatalism, and a "gris" denouement. There's also a superb theme song!

Give this movie a try, suspending your prejudice against sci-fi, and think of it from a Noir viewpoint. An exceptionally well-crafted little flick!


Sunday, October 07, 2007

Scandal Sheet (1952)

Posted by Steve-O

The story behind the creation of the 1952 newspaper-noir Scandal Sheet (1952) is almost as interesting as the film itself.

Sam Fuller - a newspaper crime writer who became a screen writer because he heard that the money was good - took a break from Hollywood and wrote the novel The Dark Page.This book was to be less like his previous light-weight pulp novels. Writers write about what they know and Fuller put his experience as a beat crime reporter on the pages of what turned out to be one hell of a crime novel. Before he could get the novel published the former crime reporter, novelist and screenwriter went off to serve in the Army. While serving with the Big Red One, he received great news from his mother. A publisher was interested in buying the rights to the first draft of the book. Then a few years later, while still fighting overseas, he found out that none other than Howard Hawks wanted to make the book into a movie. Hawks bought the rights to the film for $15,000. Fuller's mother sent Sam 1,000 dollars to her soldier son who used it to throw a party for his horribly depleted unit during a brief break from the front lines.

The good news today is the book is finally back in print. Kingly Books has done a fantastic job with the reprint of a novel that had previously been hard to come by. The new print of the 1944 book clearly is a labor of love for the publishers and editors. Fuller's story about shady newspaper men is as dark and gritty today as it was then and should be gobbled up by hard-boiled readers. The opening of the new reprint, written by film director Wim Wenders, and the well-researched afterward by Damien Love, tells some great stories about cigar-chomping Fuller and Howard Hawks plans for the book.

According to Wenders and Love, Hawks at one time considered using Humphrey Bogart in the lead for the film. Later he even though of Cary Grant as the editor of the Comet. It's even speculated that a teaming of Edward G. Robinson and Humphrey Bogart would be the perfect fit. The latter would seem to be an easy sell. You can close your eyes and almost see the movie play out in your head. Robinson as the crusty editor - not unlike his role in Unholy Partners (1941) - with Bogart playing the fast-talking beat reporter. No doubt someone like Ann Sheridan or Lauren Bacall could have played the female lead.

Unfortunately, the film was never made by Hawks. Instead he sold the rights, for six times what he paid for them, to Columbia Pictures.

Scandal Sheet (1952)
View Photo Slideshow

Columbia made the film - stripped down and not nearly as glossy as a Hawks film - and called it Scandal Sheet. Broderick Crawford was cast in the lead role. Though not the star Fuller imagined would play the part of the newspaper editor, Crawford absolutely nails the part so completely that it's hard to imagine why the film makers would have wanted anyone else for the role.

The film was directed by Phil Karlson. During his long career Karlson made some damned entertaining junk including Ben and Walking Tall in the 70s. But for a brief time in the 1950s he put out some of the grittiest film noir. Scandal Sheet, Kansas City Confidential, 99 River Street and The Phenix City Story all had their flaws but today they stand up and are considered some of the best from the classic film noir period.

As always, as does all these Noir of the Week articles, spoilers follow.

Scandal Sheet tells the story of newspaper editor Mark Chapman. He's the head of a tabloid-style newspaper in New York city. His goal is simple - keep increasing the circulation by any means possible. The headlines on the paper are great. Instead of the Britney and O.J. headlines in today's N.Y. tabloids, it runs equally sleazy stories about the “Gorilla Man killer” and teenage sex scandals.

The paper runs a “lonelyhearts” ball - matching up pathetic loners from all over the U.S. so Chapman can again get the city talking about his lurid headlines. He even offers a prize to the couple that gets married the night of the ball - a bed with a built-in TV! The singles are sad and the movie, like Fuller's book, makes fun of them for being so gullible and stupid. Unfortunately, every time Chapman does something sleazy like this he's lectured by female reporter Julie Allison (Donna Reed).

(I assume the filmmakers both wanted a female lead and someone to be the conscience in the film. I could have lived without her in the movie. Anyone watching the film would know what Chapman was doing is wrong. Having it spelled out to us by Reed is just annoying.)

Something unexpected happens at the ball. Chapman runs into his wife... a woman he abandoned over twenty years ago. He even changed his identity to get away from the woman. Her existence could ruin his very public and successful career. Chapman quickly shuffles the middle-aged woman (Rosemary DeCamp who was equally dissed in Nora Prentiss) out of the ball and back to her little apartment. After a nasty argument, he shoves her and she hits her head on a pipe and dies. Chapman, now realizing he's in even deeper trouble puts the woman in the bath tub and tries to make it look like a drowning. After cleaning up he gets away without being seen.

Unfortunately, he's trained his young crime reporter too well. The next day, while everyone else thinks that the nameless woman is a nobody who accidentally drowned in a bathroom accident, Steve McCleary (played with some real spark by John Derek) figures out she was part of the Lonelyhearts ball and, with sidekick Harry Morgan at his side, finds out that she was indeed murdered. McCleary sells the story to Chapman who has no choice but publish his reporter's crime piece. Chapman must now keep his cool. While the story of the murdered woman becomes front page news every day he must do all he can do to keep McCleary from finding out that he was the killer. (think of Double Indemnity in reverse - with Robinson being the killer and Fred MacMurray out to find him.)

Scandal Sheet follows the book nicely but doesn't capture Fuller's rat-tat-tat newspaper writing style. Also, Fuller begins the novel with the killing - a newspaper writer never buries the lead. The movie takes a while to get there. The story is softened (in the novel editor Mark Chapman is a bigamist and he doesn't kill his first wife accidentally. He beats her to death) but still remains faithful to the book. I can't help thinking what it would have been like if Fuller directed it however. As good as the movie is, I imagine his version of the film would look more gritty - like the scenes between Richard Widmark and Thelma Ritter in Pickup on South Street.

But with all that said (and, yes, the novel is always better) this is a great little newspaper noir with two excellent performances by Crawford and Derek. The film was lensed by Oscar-winning cinematographer Burnett Guffey who was no stranger to film noir: he shot The Sniper, Nightfall, Night Editor, The Reckless Moment and In a Lonely Place among many others. The film is not out on video but was recently aired on Turner Classic Movies in all it's venetian-blind-shadow glory.

Editor's note: Other newspaper noir worth check out include the fantastic Ace in the Hole and The Big Clock.

Monday, October 01, 2007

The Narrow Margin (1952)

Landscapes and environment were undeniably integral aspects of many classic film noirs. They seemed nearly as important in conveying the crucial noir elements of suspense and dread as the actors starring in them. From the cobblestone streets of Vienna in The Third Man, the seedy underworld of London in Night and the City, the sprawling metropolis of Los Angeles in Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard, and of course the concrete jungle of Manhattan in Scarlet Street, The Naked City and Pickup on South Street are just few of some of the numerous possible match-ups. These environments breathed aesthetic life into these films and literally set the stage for the players to interact, investigate, pursue, be chased, live and die on their streets.

But what if our film noir protagonist didn’t have the streets of New York City to hide from his pursuers? What if he was a cop, who had no expansive boulevards of Los Angeles to elude the mob trying to rub out his star witness he was assigned to protect? What if our cop and his witness were confined to small, narrow compartments in a passenger train speeding along at 60 mph? What if that same mob had goons, bent on killing the witness, inside that same train and outside keeping pace with them in a car traveling alongside on the highway? If you’re that cop the preceding picture sounds about as appealing as being a diver in a shark cage during a feeding frenzy. Only these sharks are inside the cage with the diver. In The Narrow Margin the preceding picture comes to life in this expertly executed thriller, with even more twists piled onto the wonderfully contorted premise (warning, spoilers are a comin’).

Our film opens with a pair of L.A. detectives arriving in Chicago with an assignment to protect a widowed mob wife. She’s holding a list of names and the knowledge to put away L.A. Mafia heavies in a graft investigation. The detectives, Walter Brown (Charles McGraw) and Gus Forbes (Don Beddoe) arrive at the Chicago safe house (which is a not so safe, nor private, boarding house) where the mob widow Mrs. Frankie Neall (Marie Windsor) is being protected by the local cops. Brown and Forbes must get Mrs. Neall back to L.A. safely so she can deliver the incendiary list of names and testify to the grand jury awaiting her arrival. The transfer goes awry as one of the mob button men kills Forbes and flees before Brown can apprehend him. Brown grabs Mrs. Neall and makes a b-line to the train station with two, one-way tickets to L.A.

The Narrow Margin (1952)
View Photo Slideshow

Mrs. Neall turns out to be a real firecracker of shrew. Previously, on the cab ride from the train station to the safe-house, Forbes and Brown wonder what kind of a woman would become a mobster’s wife also adding the crucial (yet implausible) plot element that “nobody’s seen her.” Brown interjects a profile of the unseen moll, speculating that she “is a dish… a 60 cent special. Cheap, flashy and strictly poison under the gravy.” Forbes counters with foreshadowing insight that “all kinds” of women could potentially marry a Mafia racketeer, not just the stereotypical portrait Brown has painted. However, Marie Windsor’s Mrs. Neall seems to be closer to Brown’s estimate with her sharp tongue and curvaceous body. After their harrowing escape and during the cab ride to the train station with Brown, Windsor expresses zero sympathy for Forbes and the bullet he just took for her. She even begins to flirt with Brown mere minutes after his partner of six years takes the big one for the team. Brown puts the kibosh on her advances saying that she is just a job in his eyes and she quickly backs off by snarling “I wouldn’t want any of that nobility to rub off on me.”

Brown gets Windsor on the train unseen but moments later on the platform, he is spotted by mob goon Joseph Kemp (David Clarke). Kemp follows Brown on the train and the wheels are set in motion for this claustrophobic cat and mouse chase about to take place on a passenger locomotive. Brown has bought two compartments on the train for him and Mrs. Neall and they initially elude Kemp’s snooping around both rooms. But Kemp knows Brown has her stashed somewhere on the train. In addition to Kemp, a mafia liaison by the name of Vincent Yost is also on the train. He confronts and attempts to bribe Brown for the list and the whereabouts on the train of Mrs. Neall (remember the mafia apparently doesn’t know what she looks like). Brown is momentarily tempted, but he can’t be bought and also can’t arrest Yost as he has a squeaky clean record as a sales executive for one of the mob’s legitimate company fronts. Windsor’s Mrs. Neal eavesdrops at the door from the adjoining compartment the attempted bribery by Yost. She later tells Brown that he is a sucker for not taking the bribe and tells him that they could split the money and take off. Brown tells Windsor she makes him sick to his stomach to which she replies, “Well use your own sink, and let me know when the target practice starts.”

While the cat and mouse goes on between him and Kemp, Brown keeps bumping into the attractive, Mrs. Sinclair (Jacqueline White) and her son Tommy around the train. She looks the part of a wholesome woman with a precocious boy who if Ritalin was around in the early 50s, I’m sure he would be receiving the maximum daily dose. It’s no coincidence (kind of) however that Mrs. Sinclair and Brown keep meeting up. As it turns out she is the real Mrs. Neall, traveling clandestinely (as much as one can with a hyperactive eight-year old child and nanny in tow) after the D.A. instructed her to get to the coast undetected. This twist is revealed shockingly after Marie Windsor’s character is finally discovered and bumped off by Kemp and another hit man who boarded the train in Albuquerque named Densel. Equally surprising is Windsor was an internal affairs policewoman, posing as Mrs. Neall and trying to ensnare the seemingly un-bribable Brown in a payoff from the mob.

Now that the tables have been turned the tension is ratcheted up as McGraw’s Detective Brown must protect the real Mrs. Neall (who didn’t know her husband was tied to the mob and turned state’s evidence once she found out), her son Tommy and thwart Kemp and Densel (who we learn is also his partner Forbes’s killer). All of that on a speeding train with the only possible stops left on the line is death or Los Angeles.

While there are some suspect plot holes one could drive a-you-know-what through, director Richard Fleischer keeps the pace moving so quickly that time to dwell on them is not allotted. Clocking in at a lean 71minutes, there isn’t a trace of gristle in this thriller that’s as juicy and satisfying as a thick sirloin steak. Fleischer made a beautiful looking film with near perfect lighting and camera work. The latter aspect comes into play in many scenes but especially the fantastic fist fight between Kemp and Brown in a train washroom. Using a handheld camera (unusual for the time and especially fist fights), the principle actors, low angles and tight shots, make for an amazingly gritty scene of fisticuffs in such a confined, ‘narrow’ space. Fleischer expertly plays with the claustrophobic and restricted space of the train throughout the film and as the tension increases, the shots seem to get tighter and tighter. Another extraordinary aspect and bold choice on Fleischer’s part is the omission of a music soundtrack. In place of a score, Fleischer prominently features the sounds of the train and its workings to audibly add to the mood. From the loud banging together of boxcars forewarning gunplay, to a nice sound match scene transition between Windsor nervously filing her nails and the wheels of the train rhythmically churning, the film is full of these interesting plays of sound and story.

The cast is a well assembled one, each giving superb performances. Charles McGraw’s Detective Brown is the quintessential hard nosed cop, played so tough by McGraw he could sleep on kegs and spit nails as my grandfather used to say. He convincingly conveys the fallibility of temptation (when offered the bribe) adding a nice dimension to the role he’s perfectly suited to play. The scene stealer however is undoubtedly Marie Windsor. Not only is she easy on the eyes, as hers are strictly bedroom, but Windsor executes the role with moxie and flair, without overdoing it. It also helps that she gets the best lines in a dynamite script by Earl Felton from a story by Martin (Detour) Goldsmith. The Narrow Margin isn’t a perfect film but once conductor Fleischer takes your ticket, it’s a trip you won’t regret riding right to the end of the line.

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

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