Friday, October 24, 2008

Deadline at Dawn (1946) part 1

Editor's note: Sheila O'Malley is the writer of this edition of Film Noir of the Week. Her blog, The Sheila Variations, is a must read!

Written by Sheila O'Malley

Deadline at Dawn
opens with a closeup of a woman's face who appears to be asleep. But then we see a restless fly crawling on her cheek and we realize she is dead. A moment later, a knock comes on the door and slowly, the woman opens her eyes. We realize she has been asleep after all. It is a deliberately disorienting start to the film, morbid, gruesome, tricky, and is a reminder through the events that follow, even the lighthearted scenes, of the gloom and dread that can be out there in the night, waiting for us all.

Harold Clurman, the director of Deadline at Dawn, referred to it, his only picture, as "run-of-the-mill" and "of no importance" in his book All People Are Famous. A man of the theatre, founder of the influential Group Theatre in the 1930s, Clurman had little use for Hollywood, and found the materialistic focus of the filmmaking industry dismaying, although he was an associate producer at Columbia. His sense of Hollywood was that there was an emptiness, a void, so different from the New York hustle he was accustomed to, and yet at the same time he wrote:

A loneliness seeps through the thresholds of its gimcrack mansions like fog. Built up as it was, Hollywood often struck me as just so much empty space. The desert underneath affects the atmosphere. Nevertheless, for me, it was the fairground of magical encounters and even of worthy action.

In 1945, after a couple of years in Hollywood, Clurman got a chance to direct and he had his old friend and former Group Theatre colleague Clifford Odets write the screenplay to Deadline at Dawn. Many years later, Clurman's main memory of the film was that the censorship office at RKO had visited the set and complained about the cleavage on Susan Hayward, the female lead. Clurman recalls, "... both Miss Hayward and I insisted that this was one of the more pleasing features of the picture." Clurman must have won that battle, because Hayward's cleavage remains gloriously evident throughout the film. Clurman's indifferent attitude notwithstanding, Deadline at Dawn is a good film, with a zigzagging plot leading us to a couple of dead ends, a great and yet realistic sense of suspense (there are some truly creepy moments), and a noir atmosphere so thick you could cut it with a knife. Could the shadows be any more elongated?

Deadline at Dawn tells the story of Alex (played by Bill Williams), a young naive sailor on leave in New York City for 24 hours, who finds himself, through his own naivete, falling down the rabbit hole.

The not-dead woman from the opening shot turns out to be Edna Bartelli (played with a floozy hard relish by Lola Lane). Bartelli is a tough dame ("She was no lullaby but she had the brains like a man," says a character who knew her) in cahoots with her gangster brother (played by Joseph Calleia, in one of the best performances in the film. "He has a face like the back of a hairbrush," says Alex the sailor - and indeed he does). The brother and sister team run a blackmail scheme all over New York, and they pick up Alex while he is on leave, inviting him to dinner, and a game of casino at Edna's apartment. Alex gets drunk. Too drunk. He blacks out. There is an hour of the night that he does not remember. All he knows is that he fixed her radio for her, and wants to be paid for his labor. She refuses, and was a hellcat about it in the process, teasing him, asking him to hug her even though he didn't want to. She eventually passes out, and he decides to take from her wallet what is owed him. He remembers nothing else.

He "wakes up" in a newsstand across the street from Radio City. A kindly newspaper seller (one of the many eccentric characters who hover on the outskirts of this film) offers him coffee to sober him up. As Alex gets up to leave, a wad of bills falls out of his pocket, and he seems baffled as to where he got the money, and how he came to be carrying around $1,400 in cash. He's disoriented. Why can't he remember exactly what happened?

Deadline at Dawn (1946)
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Alex goes to a dance hall, and it is there that he meets June ("Call me June. It rhymes with Moon."), played by Susan Hayward, she of the sad serious kewpie doll face. June is obviously a dance hall girl, paid to dance with men who show up, and when we first see her, she is tired and grumpy, but she agrees to dance with Alex. He, thinking he's on a date, chatters away at her, telling her his whole life story, asking her questions like, "What did you want to be when you were twelve years old?" June is hard, cynical, she's heard it all before. She treats Alex like he's a halfwit. But eventually, they go back to her apartment to have sandwiches, and it is there that Alex comes clean about the disturbing events earlier in the evening. He tries to give June the money, but she won't take it, and tells him he should go back to the apartment ("She'll still be passed out cold") and put the money back, so it wouldn't be on his conscience. He asks if she will come with him, and, after resisting for a bit, she agrees. Susan Hayward does some lovely subtle acting in the film, and is able to suggest, with just a flicker in her eyes, the sadness and loneliness at the heart of June's life. She's not just a tough dame. She's a girl who came to New York with other dreams and plans, and now is afraid to go home because she'll have to tell her parents that she dances with men for money. Something in Alex, a stammering sailor boy, touches her. One of the secondary levels of the film (and it doesn't always work) is June's growing awareness of the possibility of love.

The two of them walk through the empty shadowy New York streets to return the money, looking small and vulnerable against the looming buildings. They are trailed by an ominous man in silhouette, wearing a trenchcoat and fedora. He is not detected by them. When Alex re-enters the apartment, he finds Edna Bartelli - who, earlier in the film was lying asleep with a fly on her face - now stone-cold dead. June and Alex look around the apartment for clues as to who did it. There is a white carnation on the table, a lamp has been turned over, it appears that Edna has been strangled, and there's a lipstick lying on the coffee table. June glances at it, and has a woman's intuition that it is not Edna's. "This isn't her lipstick. It belongs to a blonde."

June asks Alex, point-blank, if he did it. It is interesting that he does not answer right away, mainly because of that blank hour in his memory. He is sure he didn't do it, but how sure? He panics, knowing that once the murder is discovered, the first person the police will come looking for is him, since there were witnesses (the brother with a face like the back of a hairbrush) to his presence in the apartment earlier that night. June and Alex decide, out of desperation, to go find the real murderer, before Alex has to get on the 6 a.m. bus. They have 6 or 7 hours to solve the case. The "deadline" is at dawn, of course.

So begins a frantic race through the streets of Manhattan, which is increasingly sinister-looking and empty as the hours go by. The cinematographer was Nicholas Musuraca, who, incidentally, was also director of photography on Golden Boy and Clash by Night, two other films written by Clifford Odets. The storefronts are closed up by now, the neon blinks against the black in a lonely desolate manner, the only people awake are desperate people with secrets, it is Edward Hopper time. The darkness almost has a gleam here, in the picture, it takes on shape and tangibility. It's a beautiful-looking film.

June and Alex play detective, trying to find a blonde with a limp who was seen in the area. There are car chases up and down the deserted avenues, and a couple of absurd dead-ends, like when Alex has his cab chase down a man who bolted out of his apartment building near Edna Bartelli's, only to find that the man (played by Roman Bohnen, another old Group Theatre colleague) is racing to a pet shop, carrying his sick cat in a box.

There is a blind piano player (ex-husband to Edna Bartelli), a kindly philosophical cab driver (played exquisitely by Paul Lukas), a chilly tormented blonde with a limp (beautifully portrayed by Osa Massen, so different here from her character in A Woman's Face, a wonderful actress), a wisecracking banana seller, a famous baseball player who staggers through the streets drunk, a blonde dame in a wide-brimmed hat holding a silver pistol, and various nervous men - all of whom were being blackmailed by Edna Bartelli. The clock is running out. At times, June, who is falling in love with Alex, begs him to just "cut and run", but he refuses. He can't live his life on the run for a crime he may not have committed. He wishes he could remember what happened during that hour of blackout.

Gus Hoffman, the cab driver, finds out what the situation is with June and Alex, takes an interest in them, and joins them in their chase to find the murderer.

(Click to read part 2)

Deadline at Dawn (1946) part 2

(click for part 1)

Clifford Odets' script is a solid thriller, but to anyone familiar with Odets' language - its toughness mixed with vulnerability, its street poetry, its idealism struggling to be expressed - will hear the echoes of his famous plays of the 1930s, Waiting for Lefty, Awake and Sing, Golden Boy. June, the tough girl on her own in the city, has shades of Lorna Moon, from Golden Boy: hard-boiled, uncomfortable with the softness that the sailor brings up in her. In Golden Boy, Lorna says, "You make me feel too human, Joe. All I want is peace and quiet, not love. I'm a tired old lady, Joe, and I don't mind being what you call 'half dead'. In fact it's what I like. The twice I was in love I took an awful beating and I don't want it again!" June is tired, too. Love is not a relief, love is painful, and something to be resisted. The cab driver recognizes this battle in her, and through the course of the night, the two of them manage to have some deep conversations about it, about her world-weary pose and how it is cutting her off from life, and how when love comes knocking - you need to accept it, because it is a rare and beautiful thing. This is classic Odets. You can also hear Odets in lines like, "You sigh like the end of summer. Troubles?", "I work. I'm just a parasite on parasites.", "Don't say 'I hate the sun because it won't light my cigarette.' " Odets was the voice of the working man, the huddled masses trying to better themselves. His plays electrified the audiences in the Great Depression, because they heard their own voices in his work, so startlingly different from the other Broadway fare at that time which focused on the elites. Here, in Deadline at Dawn, Odets adds the necessary noir elements, the complicated plot, but he can't resist putting in some humanistic scenes and moments, fragments of conversation overheard, a split-second of connection in the midst of a world that is frightening and ominous.

My favorite moment in the film is when the guy racing to the pet store opens the box that holds his cat, and he realizes his cat has died. Alex and the cab driver look on, as the man pets the unseen cat, devastated. He says, with real emotion, "My dearest friend ... This is my companion .... She did everything but speak." It is a tiny moment in the film, unrelated to the plot in any way, but it adds texture, depth. The night itself becomes a character in the film. Deadline at Dawn reminded me a lot of The Clock, the wonderful Vincent Minnelli picture starring Judy Garland and Robert Walker. Although The Clock is not a noir but a romantic comedy, it also takes place during the course of one long night, when the two main characters meandering their way through the city, encounter quirky people left and right, people who enter their lives for just a moment and then exit, leaving an impression of whimsy and humanity in their wake.

June's growing love for Alex is the weakest part of the film. Susan Hayward does a lovely job over the course of the movie, showing us the cracking of her veneer. She is a very different girl at the end of the film from the one we first met in the dance hall, but Alex, as played by Bill Williams, seems a bit too much of a rube to be a valid love interest. He is written that way, but it impacts how the audience feels about him. He seems too needy, too helpless, and while that is part of the appeal for June (she says, with tears on her face, deep in thought, "What a baby ..."), it leaves a rather stale impression. It's hard to invest in his happiness. It's hard to believe that these two characters could ever make a go at it.

As 6 a.m. draws closer and closer, the heat turns up, and an unlikely coalition of disparate characters develops, of all of the people who could be suspected of murder, joining forces to find the person who really did it.

True to its nature all along, the plot has tricks up its sleeve, and suspicion moves from one person, to the next, to the next ... and it is not until the final moments when the truth is, at last, revealed.


While not a great film, Deadline at Dawn is suspenseful, and potent with atmosphere. Harold Clurman had a long career as a theatrical historian, critic, and writer. His book On Directingis a classic of its kind. And although he was talking about directing for the stage in that book, it is obvious here in Deadline at Dawn, his only film, that he was able to translate his technique to the screen. The scenes work. The characters are well-drawn, if broad. The moments that need to soften up and slow down seem to happen organically. His understanding of the craft of acting was better than most, and while his could be quite an intellectual approach, that is not always a bad thing. Script analysis is important, making real the who, what, where, why, when ... and even with the deliberately disorienting plot, leading us down countless dead-ends to up the ante, in Deadline at Dawn we never lose sight of where we are. We can feel the clock ticking, and we know that time is passing, irrevocably. The suspense is on a slow and sustained boil. June and Alex stand over the dead body in the empty apartment, the bare light bulb in the one lamp throwing their shadows far back onto the opposite wall like a creepy vision out of De Chirico, and they whisper to one another, trying to tamp down their growing panic. These are good scenes. Melodramatic, but not too much so. Clurman wrote once, in regards to acting students taking classes, "Whether they know it or not, they are looking for someone who is ready to affirm something. They are sick of merely being discontented with a world that, as the saying goes, they never made. The best among them will learn that waiting for Godot need be neither a static position nor a fight. It is a search." The best of Deadline at Dawn is not its plot, or its noir devices, but the characters, all of them lost, lonely, hopeful, looking not just for the real murderer, but their own lives, their own truth. It is a search, too.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Bad Blonde (1953)

“I’ve seen better bodies hanging in a butcher shop.”

Picture a bored, sexy young wife married to a much older husband, and then add a hunky young stud to the picture. These are the elements of the anguished love triangle, but in noir, it’s a recipe for murder. Gorgeous Cora Smith (Lana Turner) is tucked away in a roadside diner when she spies drifter Frank Chambers (John Garfield) in the classic noir The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), and luscious Virginia Madsen is saddled with a boring yokel of a husband in the neo-noir The Hot Spot (1990) when slick salesman, Harry Madox (Don Johnson) strolls into town. In the world of noir, bored, sexually frustrated women who make incongruous housewives restlessly pace the kitchens of Middle America, dreaming of ways to rid themselves of their husbands, when fate suddenly hands them what appears to be a means of escape through a deadly relationship with a muscular hunk.

It’s exactly this scenario in the British noir Bad Blonde (AKA The Flanagan Boy, The Woman is Trouble) starring bombshell Barbara Payton. This beautiful blonde actress, perhaps best remembered for her role as Holiday Carleton in Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, was born for noir. Early studio publicity shots show a young, wholesome blonde, but no one can hide the Payton ‘look’--there’s an intelligent calculation there, an air of discontent, a restlessness that lingers just beneath the surface of those perfect, even features.


Hollywood is full of tragic stories, but you’d have to go a long way to find a story like Barbara Payton’s. Noir fans are well aware of Barbara’s involvement in one of the most notorious scandals in Hollywood--a love triangle involving Payton, Franchot Tone (Phantom Lady), and Tom Neal (Detour). This was a scandal that buried the careers of Payton and Neal while Tone managed to resurrect himself largely unscathed. Following a well-publicized brawl over Payton, Tone was hospitalized with cerebral concussion, a shattered left cheekbone, a broken nose, and a fractured right upper jaw. At the time of Tone’s beating, he was expected to die, but he lived and later went through extensive plastic surgery. The subsequent fallout surrounding Payton’s out-of-control personal life put the nail in the coffin of a promising career already tainted by scandal--including an affair with Bob Hope and ties to the mob. In Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, The Barbara Payton Story,biographer John O’Dowd thoroughly details the scandal, the actress’s firing from Warner Brothers Studio in 1951 and Jack Warner’s personal efforts to ensure that other studio heads would not hire this troubled star.

In a turbulent, violent, off-and-on again relationship with Neal, Payton fled with him to England--a sanctuary of sorts--in 1952. At the time, the offer to work in England probably looked like a lifeline to this troubled actress, but the two films (The Flanagan Boy & The Four Sided Triangle) she made for Hammer Films were a significant step down for Payton who had banked $12,000 a week at the peak of her career. The films, co-productions of Astor and Lippert pictures, coupled American stars with British casts, and these films were designed to play as a lesser second feature on a double-bill.

Directed by Reginald Le Borg, and based on the novel by crime author Max Catto, Bad Blonde throws Barbara Payton into Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, she hadn’t expected believable circumstances but in such an alien environment, she seems wildly out-of-place. She’s the best thing in the picture: sensual, cruel, unprincipled and viciously trampy, she pulses with passion and lust amidst a motley assortment of males who don’t know how to handle her.

The film begins at a carnival with small-time trainer Sharkey (Sid James) staging a fixed fight on a tiny ring inside a tatty tent. But instead of the pre-arranged audience plant picking up the challenge to fight Sharkey’s boxer, a young, blond strapping former merchant seaman steps up to the ring and fights for the prize. As the young stranger strips off his shirt and reveals his muscles, Sharkey sizes him up with a long, hard look. The stranger, Johnny Flanagan (Tony Wright) wins the fight, and soon signs on as a professional boxer with Sharkey as his trainer. Fans of much-loved comedian, craggy-faced Sid James will appreciate his performance--even though he was ultimately under-utilized in the film. And while it seems a bit odd to see Sid playing a straight role, the fame of Sid’s lasting contribution to the immensely popular British comedy Carry-On films was still in Sid’s future at this point. Also, he played the role of Sharkey in the 1948 British television version of the novel.

Flanagan doesn’t appear to have a “weak point” as a fighter, but just as this comment is made, the camera pans to Flanagan flirting with a barmaid in the local pub. Sharkey doesn’t miss the interaction--he’s quite aware of Flanagan’s weakness--even at this early stage of the film.

Since Sharkey is just a small-time player, he needs someone to bankroll his new fighter, and this leads him to take Flanagan to meet fighting promoter Giuseppe Vecchi (Frederick Valk). Portly, gregarious Giuseppe thinks everyone on the planet is his friend, but then again perhaps he’s in such a good mood because he’s newly married to bombshell Lorna (Barbara Payton), a former taxi dancer from New York. Giuseppe is about to leave on vacation with Lorna, and with none-too-subtle sexual implications, he brags that he’ll need a rest after his holiday.

Barbara Payton makes a memorable splash with her first scene in the film, and certainly livens things up when she adjusts her stockings in the open doorway of a hotel bathroom. As Giuseppe and Sharkey talk business, Flanagan eyeballs Lorna’s long stocking-clad legs and her bare thighs while his jaw drops open. Slamming the door to reinforce her ‘outrage’ and her inaccessibility when she supposedly notices that she’s part of a peep show, Lorna sets the tone of the relationship with Flanagan. To reinforce her sexual dominance, Lorna belittles Flanagan, humiliating him with her indifference, sarcasm and complete boredom. Sharkey is the only person wily enough to sniff that a game is afoot and that Lorna has thrown down the gauntlet to challenge Flanagan ‘s sexuality. Giuseppe, meanwhile, as the about-to-be cuckolded husband is oblivious to the tension.

Bad Blonde makes no coy attempts to inflate the attraction between Flanagan and Lorna. It’s sex, pure and simple. When Lorna and Giuseppe attend Flanagan’s first fight, she focuses on his body, and when the fight begins, her lips part with excitement and sexual arousal. Flanagan and Lorna lock eyes, and the moment is frozen for a few seconds. When their affair begins, it’s coated with the obligatory words of love, but several times during the film, the camera emphasizes Lorna’s predatory gaze absorbing the details of Flanagan’s muscular physique.

Lorna, Giuseppe, Flanagan and Sharkey retreat to the secluded splendor of the Vecchi country home--a place that Giuseppe insists is private because there are no servants. The lack of servants should keep Lorna safely chained to the kitchen sink, but we see all the characters at play in the mansion, which comes complete with its own lake. It’s obvious that with marriage to Giuseppe, Lorna has hit the big time, but she’s not exactly celebrating. Bored and petulant, the sultry Lorna barely tolerates her dumpling of a spouse’s larger-than-life personality that’s matched by his expanded waistline.

While Giuseppe is a buffoon, Flanagan is also a poor mate for Lorna, and there’s little heat between this ill-matched couple. Oddly enough, there’s much more screen tension between Sharkey and Lorna, and as antagonists, they fight over possession of Flanagan. Flanagan is just a tool for Lorna’s devious plans, and while there are plenty of shots displaying him as pure beefcake as he strides across the set in a variety of bathing and boxing trunks, somehow he never really picks up the pace as Lorna’s lover and partner-in-crime. His lines are delivered with a definite lack of feeling and enthusiasm. Perhaps Wright’s heart wasn’t in the role, but even so, Flanagan is no foil for Lorna, and he’s little more than a victim who periodically whines for the man he’s cuckolding. Wright, who mainly went on to star in television productions, seems as out-of-his depth as the character he plays, and when Lorna suggests murder, Flanagan is too weak to refuse.

While the elements of noir abound in Bad Blonde, there’s no tension in this tepid drama and that’s surprising considering the sexual undertones of the film. At one point, Sharkey excuses Flanagan’s poor performance in the ring to “over-training”--with a significant,
disapproving look cast towards Lorna. She, of course, doesn’t even have the decency to look guilty, and instead a look of nonchalant disinterest crosses her face. In another scene, Lorna uses the less-than-pleasant details of her sex life with Giuseppe to manipulate Flanagan into murdering her rotund spouse: “it’s sweat and slobber. He never leaves me alone…when he touches me, I have to close my eyes so I don’t see him.” That impassioned statement conjures up a vision that’s enough to make your skin crawl, but the details only succeed in making Flanagan look squeamish rather than murderous. Payton tries to beat some life into the picture, allowing her fur to slip from her shoulder while she purrs that she’s “too hot to sleep,” for example, but in spite of Payton’s pulsing sexuality, unfortunately she can’t breathe life into the picture on her own. The fact that a handful of Giuseppe’s Italian relatives make an appearance, twittering, clutched together like a bunch of moth-eaten crows, and resembling some sort of misplaced Greek chorus doesn’t help matters.

Barbara Payton fans (and count me in) will appreciate the film for what it is--a B movie that stars an actress too seldom seen--chewed up and spat out by Hollywood. What’s so tragic to note is Payton’s deterioration--already quite apparent in Bad Blonde. Just compare her in Bad Blonde to Bride of the Gorilla (1951) a film in which she starred with Raymond Burr. In Bad Blonde, Payton is noticeably heavier, and she’s losing her fine-featured profile to alcohol and dissipation.

Payton’s off-screen life was far more tragic than any film role she ever played. Hounded by personal problems, and lousy relationships with a succession of men, Payton soon fell into obscurity, drug abuse, alcohol addiction, and prostitution and was dead before the age of 40. For those interested in reading more about Payton’s life, there’s no better source than O’Dowd’s wonderful biography: Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, The Barbara Payton Story,which details Payton’s tragic life with clarity and insight. We only have a handful of Payton films to enjoy, and fans will view Bad Blonde with a realization of all that we missed by the loss of this gorgeous, tragic, fast-burning star.

Written by GuySavage

Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Bank Job (2008)

Heist Noir Part 1: The Bank Job

Posted by Steve-O

Film noir was never meant to be realistic. In a 1953 New York Times review of Pickup on South Street reviewer Bosley Crowther called the now-classic noir “brutish and... sadistic” and went on to conclude “Sam Fuller, who wrote it and directed, appears to have been more concerned with firing a barrage of sensations than with telling a story to be believed.” What a perfect way to describe film noir. It's not supposed to be realistic - although film watchers today may think that was a goal of classic-era film makers. The truth is, however, no one ever talked like Walter Neff; and no detective was as clever as Philip Marlowe. It was a made-up world where camera angles and acting were exaggerated for effect. Film noir plots were so dense movie goers weren't expected to understand fully what happened. It was an attitude more than any other element. Personally, I watched Out of the Past at least five times before I decided actually to try to follow the plot. I was too busy the first four viewings just taking in the amazing camera work and listening to the almost poetic dialogue. I, as a first time viewer, was satisfied with the “sensations” the film gave me more than the story that was being told.

Jack Shadoian, in his excellent book Dreams and Dead Ends: The American Gangster Film, writes:
Noir was an attitude that could be applied to most any kind of film, and was. It hardened and nastied up a soaper like Mildred Pierce (1945), existentialized a Western like Yellow Sky (1948), and confounded a culture piece like the normally imperturbable George Cukor's A Double Life (1947).

Noir cinema is about people who live in the night and make their fearful way through darkness.
Most film noir, however, usually involves a crime and some of the best film noir are “heist films.” Both The Bank Job (2008) and Armored Car Robbery (1950) are excellent examples. Unlike many other heist films considered noir - including The Scar or The Asphalt Jungle - Armored Car Robbery and The Bank Job have a bit of reality mixed in with the classic film noir attitude. Both movies are based on real-life crimes. The Bank Job's plot is taken from the 1971 London vault cleanout on Baker Street labeled the walkie-talkie robbery while Armored Car Robbery is a story based on a 1934 armored car heist at the Rubel Ice Company in Brooklyn. However, if you assumed that these movies are somehow realistic you'd be wrong. They follow other film noir before them by being over-the-top crime movies with attitude.

The Bank Job is a wonderfully sleazy film. It's filled with enough sex and violence that, if made years before, would have made Sam Fuller smile (and reviewer Crowther probably blow his top). The thing I love about The Bank Job is the fact that the criminals who actually pull off the crime know they aren't all that clever. They do the crime knowing it probably won't work out for the best. It turns out that the robbery - that was just supposed to be about “snatching and grabbing” cash in a bank vault - ends up being in reality a set up by British politicians and crooked coppers - a complex attempt to recover some highly embarrassing blackmail-related sex photos stored in the vault. British intelligence uses just about everything in their power to get the small-time criminals who walk away with said photos (and whatever else they could get their hands on) from the vault.

Jason Statham (a modern-day B-movie star in the mold of Charles McGraw) has never been better. Statham, who has a dominating movie-star presence on screen, should have a serious talk with his agent and demand he only make movies like this in the future.

The heist plan is hatched when Statham's Terry Leather gets together with a sexy old flame who tells him about an easy bank vault job. Leather jumps on the chance to get rich quick even knowing he's not smart enough actually to get away with it. When he and his colorful gang do pull off the crime early in the movie, the crooks goes underground when it seems like the whole country is looking for them. Leather and friends are forced to play a couple of intense chess games simultaneously against a smarter mob and MI5 while also being on the run from Scotland Yard. Like most heist films the crime is not the most interesting part. It's the angling to get away with it afterwards that makes the film suspenseful.

Supporting Statham is Saffron Burrows as Martine Love - the drop-dead gorgeous femme fatale that sets it all up. She looks just like those skinny 70s models from that period - that's just one of many small touches that makes the film feel not only that it took place in the 70s but that the actual film was made in that era. Although Terry Leather (love that name) is happily married I can see how no man could resist any temptation offered up by Martine - a woman all the blokes' wives don't trust and one young member of Leather's bunch secretly wants to run away with. Also in the cast is the intense David Suchet (who is probably best known as BBC's Hercule Poirot) as a porn-king you probably never - ever - want to cross.


The crime was called the walkie-talkie caper because they used walkie-talkies in the crime and was overheard by a short-wave radio enthusiast who quickly recorded the conversations and reported it to the police. Some reviewers complained - when the film was released - that there's no way that anyone would actually think that walkie-talkie conversations were somehow secure. The funny thing - that's what actually happened during the real crime. People are much more technologically savvy today. I remember using those types of radios years ago and having no idea that anyone else could pick up on them. Lucky I never tried to rob a bank.

Australian suspense-and-action pro Roger Donaldson does a fine job mixing facts from the real crime with fiction to make a very entertaining neo-noir. Mercifully, he doesn't add Tarantino-esque irony to the twisty story - an element so often found in recent British crime films. The film did modest business when it was released but I suspect it will have a cult-like following years down the road not unlike Armored Car Robbery from 1950.

Click to go to part 2 (Armored Car Robbery)

Armored Car Robbery (1950)

Heist Noir Part 2: Armored Car Robbery

Click here for part 1 (The Bank Job)

Daring armored car heists were seen in a number of film noir. The best film to show that particular crime - Burt Lancaster in Criss Cross - came out just a year before the simply-named Armored Car Robbery (James Ellroy loves the film but was no doubt re-writing it in his head when he called it “Armored Car Heist” on TCM).

The stripped-down 67-minute Armored Car Robbery is a great little crime noir that features some amazing noir photography and outstanding performances from Charles McGraw and William Talman.

Talman is a criminal mastermind out to make a fortune by quickly robbing an armored car. McGraw plays an obsessed cop out to get Talman after he guns down his long-time partner. The two are so good in the film the other actors in it barely register. The only other notable performance is Douglas Fowley playing a pencil-thin mustached thug who still lusts after his sexy wife that dumped him. (Fowley is not unlike the zoot-suit wearing wolf in that old Warner Bros cartoon whistling at Lauren Bacall.)

The film, unlike the real-life crime it's based on, takes place in Los Angeles. Dave Purvis (Talman) calls the cops every day at the same time reporting a hold up at old Wrigley Field (the one in LA, not Chicago). Every time the prowlers get to the park Purvis checks his stopwatch and notes the time. He's trying to time out how long cops will get to the park as part of a simple plan to rob an armored car that makes it's last stop there loaded with cash.

Once he's satisfied with the plan, he recruits his gang. Unlike Terry Leather in The Bank Job, Purvis thinks of himself as a criminal mastermind. He's never been arrested - never even had a parking ticket. He keeps no written evidence on any of his plans. He cuts the labels off his suits and doesn't let his fellow criminals write anything down. He wants nothing to be traced back to him after the crime. He invites his criminal recruits (lead by Fowley) to his hotel room. They're easily impressed by the map of the Wrigley Field neighborhood concealed in his window shade. The three men go along with the scheme once they find out that Purvis is involved. Apparently he pulled off a similar heist before, and has quite a reputation among his peers. Little do they realize Purvis is not much smarter than they are. He had no plan once the crime goes sour and his decisions afterwards are all questionable.

Steve Brodie (famous for being beaten up twice by Elvis in movies) and Gene Evans are the other criminals. However, these familiar faces to fans of 40s and 50s film don't make much of an impression here. Blonde bombshell Adele Jergens plays Benny McBride's (Fowley) wife known by her professional dancing name Yvonne LeDoux. She's shacking up with Purvis - but Benny has no idea.

"Tough break, Marsha"
Image from Alan K. Rode's personal collection

The heist doesn't go as planned. Lieutenant Cordell of the LAPD (McGraw) and his partner are in the neighborhood right when the crime is broadcast on police radios. They arrive to the surprise of Purvis who shoots Cordell's partner played by James Flavin - movie buffs will remember him as the second mate on the ship that captured King Kong (1933). After shooting the cop, the four criminals jump in a car in front of Wrigley filed and try to take it on the lam. McBride is shot in the gut but the four still manage to elude cops at road blocks on the lookout for them. Eventually they head for a shack near an oilfield where they'll eventually jump in a boat and make their final getaway. The injured McBride throws a monkey wrench into their plans. Purvis's gang begins to unravel as distrust and paranoia begins to build. Benny - who knows he's going to die if he doesn't see a doctor - is killed by Purvis after he demands his share of the loot to get medical care. His body and the get-away car are dumped. Purvis quick gets to work eliminating the other crooks. Gang member Al Mapes (Brodie) gets away and looks up Yvonne at the Burly Q where she works at as a means to find Purvis and get his money taken from him but is trapped. Purvis gets away again.

During an exciting finale, Talman ends up getting killed on the Metropolitan Airport tarmac after kissing the blades of an arriving airplane. The robbery money is blown all over the runway - not unlike the ending of The Killing. McGraw goes to the hospital to visit his second partner - who was also put into harms way and shot by Purvis. Luckily, this partner lives and they can both share a laugh together before the movie ends.

Talman began his screen career as a cold-blooded killer in The Woman on Pier 13 (1949). After Armored Car Robbery Talman would play several menacing characters in noir including City That Never Sleeps (1953), and the prison-escape films Big House USA And Crashout in 1955. He's striking screen presence - bulging lizard-like eyes and high forehead - made him a natural playing heavies. His greatest success would be pairing up with another regular noir villain Raymond Burr in Perry Mason. Talman's inept district attorney Hamilton Burger would battle but ultimately lose every week to Burr's Mason for years on TV. Talman's best role in noir, I think, is the Ida Lupino-directed The Hitch-Hiker (1953) playing killer Emmett Myers.

Charles McGraw, according Alan K. Rode's biography on McGraw - Charles McGraw: Biography of a Film Noir Tough Guy- was immediately cast for Code 3 (the original name of the film) after the success of The Threat in 1949. Until then McGraw alternated between playing villains and good guys - memorably evil in The Killers (1946), T-Men (1949) and The Threat - before being regularly cast as hard-nosed cops by the time The Narrow Margin was released in 1952.

Rode notes:
As “Lieutenant Cordell” of L.A.P.D. Robbery-Homicide, Charles McGraw was John Law personified. McGraw, decked out in classic Robbery-Homicide mufti of belted raincoat and pulled-down fedora, is relentless in pursuit of the holdup gang who killed his partner. No punches are pulled as he closes ground on the elusive Talman while inhaling reheated squad room java and snapping off terse Earl Felton dialogue:


Eddie Muller in his book Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noirsays McGraw is the only actor who actually looks like an armored car. Muller praise his performance as well and notes that McGraw “took taciturn to tight-lipped extremes.” Check out how McGraw handles talking to his partner's widow:


Making these kinds of thrillers back in the 40s and early 50s meant taking on the Breen office. Any film filled with crime, violence, strippers and sex were bound to be looked at closely. Alan Rode in his McGraw biography talks about how Armored Car Robbery was censored:
An interesting historical perspective about period censorship is provided in some of the correspondence about Armored Car Robbery between RKO and the Production Code Administration. The Code office was run by the resolute Joseph I. Breen. Breen’s office possessed Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) approval authority over all movies released for public exhibition. The studio moguls cemented this system into place after the hue and cry by the Catholic Church and similar public moral guardians who threatened a boycott of Hollywood’s product, hereafter dubbed ‘pre-code’ films, during the early 1930’s. The code was in place, but had been largely ignored. The studios believed they needed an independent enforcer in order to protect their golden goose from themselves. Although Breen was a pompous moralist, the actual roadblock was the narrowly composed, rigid Production Code that the studios tied themselves to in order to placate the state censorship boards and the Church. In practice, the Code system became an administrative limbo bar which producers and directors had to navigate under or around in order to get their pictures approved for release. The initially submitted script for Armored Car Robbery raised some of the moralistic hackles at the Breen office which were retrospectively typical. Breen urged RKO to ensure that Adele Jergens’ breasts remained appropriately hidden during the burlesque numbers in the film. Any hint that Jergens’ character was a loose woman, i.e. stripper must be either “eliminated or downplayed” in accordance with the Code. Breen was also appalled that the audience might conclude that the Jergens character, Yvonne Le Doux was actually having extramarital sex with Bill Talman’s amoral gangster in a motel room. Breen demanded that some of the minimally suggestive dialogue between the two actors during the hotel room sequences be revised to reflect a more exculpatory relationship. Earl Fenton made some cosmetic changes to the script to allay Breen’s concerns before filming began and the finished product was stamped with the MPAA seal and released.

Director Richard O. Fleischer (son of Popeye creator Max Fleischer) did an excellent job with the compact film. Some consider this to be Fleisher's best work while churning out B-movies during the RKO years.

However, if you watch the film expecting to find realistic criminal crime-solving techniques of the late 1940s forget about it. The way the LAPD tracks down the money is highly unlikely. Then again, the movie succeeds because of the heightened emotion and attitude put into it by McGraw, Talman and director Fleischer - not the story itself. Just like most great film noir.

Armored Car Robbery and The Bank Job are two excellent crime films. The two would make a great double feature for film noir fans craving heist movies.

Written by Steve-O

Monday, October 06, 2008

Road House (1948)

Road House, the fifth and last of the noirs directed by Jean Negulesco is unquestionably his best effort in the genre. That is, if we are in fact comfortable with the film itself taking a spot upon the shelves with other more hard-boiled offerings. So the first question for this reviewer is; is Road House film noir or your typical love triangle drama?

A number of the quintessential elements of noir are missing from Road House. Perhaps the most noticeable being the absence of the gritty urban landscape we generally associate with noir. The closest we ever get to a big city is the mention, on more than one occasion, of Chicago which we’re told is to the east and which the protagonist Jefty (Richard Widmark) makes frequent trips to for the purpose of acquiring “talent” for his bar/bowling alley located in the north woods of Michigan (or Minnesota) not far from the Canadian border.

Along with the absence of a cityscape comes the absence of those outer trappings we’ve grown accustomed to in film noir; fedoras, trench coats, double breasted suits and gowns of every shape and style. In our story Hart, Schaffer & Marx and London Fog are replaced by Abercrombie & Fitch. We’re not talking the A&F of the raging hormone and pimply face youth of today but the original “outfitter of the Presidents” which translates into flannel and wool shirts and clothing designed to be worn while communicating with nature.

Second we have no femme fatale. Yes we have a lovely candidate for the job, Lily Stevens (Ida Lupino) who’s hard as nails but has none of the traits we usually associate with the typical femme fatale; scheming, conniving, or double crossing. Basically all we know is she’s had a hard past but isn’t looking for a hand out or seeking a means to beat the system via the use of her charms.

While a couple of thematic elements may be missing, the style director Negulesco and cinematographer Joseph LaShelle bring to Road House leaves no doubt as to it’s placement along side their other noirs; Where the Sidewalk Ends, Laura, Fallen Angel, and Nobody Lives Forever.

The story itself has been told many times in film and literature; the lovers triangle. Only this time let’s call it the Ménage à trois from hell. As mentioned, the film takes place in the outer reaches of the back woods primarily in the bowling alley owned by Jefty but ran by his life-long pal Pete (Cornel Wilde). Seems Pete not only runs the business end of the business but also serves as the go to guy when Jefty tires of his “talent” and needs to break off the arrangement.

The story opens with a shot of Lily’s bare leg perched upon Pete’s desk as he enters his living quarters located above the bowling alley. This is the first of many shots of Lily’s gams but needless to say it’s a real attention grabber right out of the stating gate. After the obligatory repartee, the result which immediately leaves a bad impression of Lily with Pete, in strolls Jefty. It’s interesting to note that seeming protruding from his head are antlers, or horns if you prefer and offer a precursor to his devilish plan that unfolds during the last third of the film.

Jefty proceeds to inform Pete while on his most recent trip (think in terms of “hunting”) to Chicago he found Lily and she’s to be the new performer at the bar and at double what the going price as been in the past. This should be a tip that Jefty has absolutely no head for business.

It’s most interesting to note the walls of Jefty’s Road House are adorned with the heads and antlers of many animals and can easily be a metaphor for Jefty’s constant quest and bagging of talent of the female kind for the road house. That Jefty had it easy in life and never grew up is made apparent several times; his always referring to everyone as “kid,” and by his own admission he knows nothing of the weekly monetary take of the road house or how much simple provisions cost. As in turns out, Jefty’s father had owned the business and it became his upon his father’s passing. We’re also lead to believe Jefty still occupies the home of this youth for the one scene played inside his house reveals a home much more suited to a bygone era and much older inhabitants.

Road House could almost qualify as a “musical noir,” in that rather than having the one excruciating obligatory musical number most noirs have, there are several. This is of course necessary in keeping with the story line and giving Lily ample time to display her singing talents. Actually her singing is the source of a couple of well placed verbal jabs by the last major member of the cast Susie (Celeste Holm). For example, when Sam the bartender asks Susie if she likes the singing she replies “If you like sound of gravel.” Another time she remarks Lily “Does more without a voice than any one I’ve ever heard.” Later on Lily takes a shot at herself by refusing a drink on the house because it’s “bad for my voice’ all the while puffing away on a cigarette.

While “gravel” may be Susie’s description I compare in more to water running down the street gutter. It’s not the stuff of nails on the blackboard but close and it bears noting Ms Lupino to her credit did her own singing rather than having it dubbed.

While on the subject of Ms Lupino you’re also got to wonder who came up with the hair do she sports? My first thought was Boris Karloff as the Frankenstein monster must have been the inspiration with the flat-head look.

All this aside, Jefty is nevertheless smitten by Lily much to her displeasure. Again his lack of being able to act in a grown up world is revealed by his constant pawing her and his telling Pete “All girls want the same thing, a guy to take care of them.” He has no clue how to run a business, treat a friend or a woman. He’s like a child throwing a tantrum and bent on having his way regardless of the consequents.

While Richard Widmark only gets fourth billing in Road House (his third screen appearance) he owns the film. After the first 15 minutes with a little Tommy Udo sandwiched in here and there you know his character is a time bomb waiting to explode. And while he won’t get the girl he’ll grab the audience and not let go till the final credits roll. It makes no matter that we all know who’ll end up with girl at the end as the journey is worth far more than the destination.

Written by Raven

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