Sunday, March 27, 2011

Allotment Wives (1945)

She Did it For Love: Allotment Wives (1945) by Guy Savage

“Nice shooting….”

Crimes of social deviance always land the perps in the criminal Hall of Shame. Crimes for monetary gain, however, sometimes carry an aura of panache. Perhaps it’s the sheer boldness of the crime, the intelligence poured into planning or even the scale of the operation. Perhaps the average law-abiding Joe nurses an unfulfilled wish to game the system and sail off into the sunset loaded with cash, and perhaps this lends a certain glamour to crimes for financial gain.

But even with the division of various motivations for crime in mind, there are some bloodless crimes for monetary gain that seem particularly heartless, and that idea emerges in Allotment Wives, a 1945 B-crime film from director, William Nigh. This film explores the beaucoup bucks to be made bilking servicemen. The plan is really quite simple and taps into the slowly churning machine of national bureaucracy through the Office of Dependency Benefits (ODB). In some ways, since it’s the government that pays, this could be seen as a victimless crime, but in reality it’s the WWII servicemen, lonely and far away from home, facing death in the battlefields of Europe, who are the victims here.

Allotment Wives, Inc., that’s the name given to the nationwide syndicate at work bilking the government of millions of dollars, operates through bigamous marriages to servicemen. The syndicate is run by hard-as-nails Sheila Seymour (Kay Francis) and a handful of male handlers. These male handlers recruit girls and operate similarly to pimps. The girls are groomed to the scam and then placed in canteens where they meet lonely servicemen. With the spectre of war at everyone’s heels, there’s no time for slow romance, and so the servicemen marry girls they barely know and then go to war. Their brides, engaged in many bigamous marriages at once, turn over their benefits to their handlers, and the handlers in turn report to Sheila Seymour. These arrangements pay off in a different way if the servicemen die in the line of duty. Then the “jackpot” comes in the form of an insurance check.

Yes it’s a nifty, but grubby, little fraudulent scheme. The problem is that it’s so successful that even the Office of Dependency Benefits stirs from its bureaucratic slumber and smells a rat. The fraud “organized” cross-country on a big scale, has become a “major racket of huge proportions.” Squeaky clean Colonel Pete Martin (Paul Kelly) is summoned to the ODB and asked to investigate and told that the women who engage in bigamy may be fairly easy to catch, but they only “represent the fringe of a central organization that must be found and broken up.” Martin initially balks at the idea until he learns that one of his friends, now in Arlington Cemetery, was a victim of this scam.

With scenes depicting the relentless efficiency of monolithic government systems at work (similar to the 1949 film Trapped), the film begins with a heavy, preachy documentary style, and ends with the moral that servicemen should ‘know’ the women they marry. Sandwiched in between these two elements is an interesting character study, and even though the fraud committed against the servicemen seems particularly below the belt, nonetheless the hardened dame who runs the scheme is not portrayed altogether unsympathetically.

Sheila Seymour, the woman who runs Allotment Wives, Inc, is a woman from the wrong side of the tracks. Her criminal past is buried underneath sophisticated polish and charm. Similar to Lorna Hansen Forbes aka Ethel Whitehead (Joan Crawford) in The Damned Don’t Cry, there are a range of mythic rumours about her mysterious past. The rich business donors who are half in love with her repeat the stories that she was married to a Bavarian Prince or comes from Oklahoma oil money while they hand over $10,000 checks to sponsor her canteen. Her public persona is that of a wealthy, gently-spoken, charity-driven society woman who delights, charms and persuades affluent men to invest in her noble cause: the canteen she runs for lonely servicemen. Behind closed doors, in a hidden chamber from where she directs her criminal empire, we see a very different Sheila--decisive, cold and merciless. As we see Sheila operating, there’s the implicit idea that this is a woman who could have done anything she wanted, but hampered by poverty, she turned to crime.

Sheila’s right-hand-man is Whitey Colton (Otto Kruger), and while he appears to be a father figure to Sheila, there may be more than meets the eye. He’s the only man Sheila listens to, and she relies on him as she relies on no other. As with the other relationships at play in the film, the plot doesn’t dig into too much sordid detail. Similarly, we don’t see the slippery ethics of the new bigamous brides delivering sex to their servicemen husbands before they are shipped off to the front. Instead the women laugh and flirt safely in the canteen, and occasionally whoop it up on the dance floor.

Sheila’s Achilles’ heel is her daughter, Connie Seymour (Teala Loring), a budding young woman who can’t wait to explode into adulthood. Sheila has her daughter stashed (read locked up) in an elite girls’ school. Connie is willful yet innocent when it comes to the source of their income. She can’t understand why she’s locked up at school and not having fun like everyone else.

While Martin goes undercover as a newspaper reporter to crack the bigamous marriage ring, trouble also arrives in the form of mutiny in the ranks of Sheila’s minions coupled with the arrival of one of Sheila’s old partners in crime, Gladys Smith (Gertrude Michael). She recognizes Sheila and the blackmail begins. From here, the situation spirals out of control, and the bloodless crimes of bigamy and fraud escalate into bold, daylight murder.

Allotment Wives is a curious little film with some campy moments, but it’s fascinating for its depiction of the enemy at home running amuck while the soldiers fight at the front. There’s one scene where we are told that the scammers who run the bigamous marriage ring are “just like Japs or Germans—rotten to the core.” Digging out the enemy from within became, of course, a popular battle cry during McCarthyism, and while the targets of McCarthyism were innocent victims of Red Fury, nonetheless, the zest of the ODB towards digging out the insidious domestic enemy seems to foreshadow the shameful politics of the 50s.

The film can’t help exploiting the social tragedy involved--one woman hangs herself in a cell, for example, and there are tales of returning soldiers who discover that their new brides have vanished. But underneath all this, Sheila operates altering from one scene to another. In one minute, she’s a hard dame doling out the orders to her gang of hoods, and in the next, she’s just like any other mother worried about her delinquent daughter. The film isn’t going to win any prizes, and it’s a stretch, a big one, to call this noir, but nonetheless this is an interesting study in female criminality. In the film’s dramatic conclusion, it’s clear that even squeaky-clean Martin admires the woman he was sent to destroy.

And if by chance you think the whole Allotment Wives thing is preposterous, the mother of Kathy Pettingill, the so-called Matriarch of the Melbourne crime family (watch Animal Kingdom), married at least six merchant seamen bigamously--largely for their pensions. The big difference here is that Kathy Pettingill’s mother was not part of a syndicate--she was a free-lancer.


Written by Guy Savage

Monday, March 21, 2011

Quicksand (1950)

This week we take a second look at Mickey Rooney’s initial journey into the world of noir. Released by United Artists in 1950, Quicksand was sandwiched between Mick’s “sports films” which were made with the intention of changing his on screen persona as the perpetual kid from Carvel High by placing him in more mature roles. During this run Mick plays a boxer (Killer McCoy), race car driver (The Big Wheel) and a roller derby skater (Fireball). While all entertaining in there own right, it’s Quicksand that leaves little doubt that Mick has shook off the dust from the town of Carvel and the Hardy family home and entered the adult world. Quicksand served to pave the way for his foray in noir with subsequence films such as The Strip, Drive a Crooked Road, and Baby Face Nelson all released in the ‘50’s.

But for a moment, suppose Quicksand had been another in the series of Andy Handy films. Andy’s all grown up, and not the way Judge Hardy had wished. So let us take a look at what trouble that rambunctious offspring of the Judge and Mrs. Hardy gets into once he’s “matured.”

For starters, once again Andy finds his rit in the tringer chasing skirts. This is no surprise as this pretty much was the major theme of all 16 Andy Handy films. This one could be called “Andy Hardy Looks for Love in All the Wrong Places” or, owing to the presence of Jeanne Cagney as the skirt in question, how about “Made it Ma. Top of the goil?”

So much for titles, so how’s about the set-up? This time around Dan Brady (Mick/Andy) is in need of dough so he can show the new girl Vera Novak (Cagney) a good time. So far sounds pretty much like we’re back in Carvel to me. As his means of transportation Dan sports around in an old jalopy, which is also shades of Carvel and he pals around with a bunch of swell guys named Chuck, Shorty and Buzz who are also short of cash. Are you beginning to see a pattern develop here as I sure am?

Similarities aside, the world of Santa Monica, where a good portion of the film takes place is no Carvel. While girls and guys pinched for cash and cars that have seen better days are present in both locales, times and nights were never as dark for Andy as they are for Dan.

Dan works as a grease monkey for one louse of a boss, Art Smith playing nicely against type, in an auto repair joint along with Chuck Davis (Wally Cassell). While eating lunch at a diner one day they spot the new cashier (Cagney) and of course are smitten on the spot. While paying his bill Dan puts the move on Vera and she reluctantly agrees to meet him later of a big night out listening to Red Nichols and His Five Pennies at a club on the pier.

As previously noted, Dan, like Andy, is short of cash and his attempts to borrow, or collect on loans he’d made to his pals are non-productive. So what’s a guy with a hot date and no dough to do? Just take a little withdrawal for his cash drawer at work of course. What the heck, Buzz (Jimmie Dodd) will pay him the twenty he owes him tomorrow so who’ll know? After all, it’s not like it’s stealing, just borrowing it for the night.

The night turns out somewhat different than Dan had planned as he and Vera find the club on the pier is closed that night. So as an alternative Vera takes him to the penny arcade she used to work in on the pier and we meet Nick Dramoshaq (Peter Lorre) the proprietor of the arcade. Isn’t strange how Dan and Vera were going to see Nichols and his Pennies and they end up in a penny arcade? Such is fate.

Turns out Vera’s no one man woman and had a passing interest in Nick before she priced him out of the deal by demanding he buy her a mink coat. As Dan will learn later, greed not desire is what motives Vera.

While unable to dance on the pier the night before, Dan’s time to pay the piper arrives the following morning when the auditor shows up a day early to do the weekly register count. Now faced with the prospect of the discovery of his “borrowing” from his cash drawer, Dan comes up with a fix-it-quick plan to replace the missing money. In a flash of brilliance he purchases a wrist watch on credit and then walks two doors down and pawns it. One can already feel the quicksand entrapping him.

What will follow is a series of ever increasing crimes; assault and battery, robbery, grand thief auto, breaking and entering, and kidnapping, one piling upon the other in rapid succession creating a deepening pool of quicksand that pulls on Dan to the point that murder begins sounds like a viable option.

Side note on the subject of murder; near the films conclusion while Dan is racing towards the Santa Monica pier he drives past a billboard of an upcoming appearance by Spade Cooley and his band. Some 11 years later Cooley would be sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of his wife.

Quicksand would be the darkest of the noirs Rooney would make in terms of both content and style. A good portion of the films takes place at night on the pier and in the seedy arcade and its back room occupied by the unscrupulous Nick. To show the depths Nick will go to make a quick profit, at one point he attempts to cheat a sailor out of a nickel when giving him change. It’s no wonder blackmail and the quick use of a knife is among his bag of tricks.

What for Dan begins as a routine day with his pals eating at the lunch counter steamrolls into a nightmarish world of desperation, unsavory characters and final redemption at the hands of “the other woman” in his life.

This other woman, Helen Calder (Barbara Bates) is Dan’s long suffering girl friend who “stands by her man” at the end. Her so doing doesn’t dampen the dark mood of the film by tacking on the Hollywood standard “happy ending” but rather it provides a means by which Dan can reclaim the decently she sees within him in spite of his transgressions against her and the law.

Coming in at a brisk 79 minutes, nary a moment is wasting on such trivial issues as character development. When we see Dan and his pals, his boss, his gal (both bad and good) and the sleepy-eyed Nick, we know from the get-go who’s good, who’s bad and don’t need to know much more. As the action begins accelerating, we hang on for the ride, just like the roller coaster at the pier. We know it’d be fast with ups and downs and with a number of curves thrown in along the way. As such, it’s not unlike the sinking ride into the quagmire of quicksand Dan puts himself in by “borrowing” twenty bucks.

Written by Raven

Monday, March 14, 2011

Cop (1988)

I’m going to go way out on a limb here, and say that in my opinion the relatively unknown movie Cop may just be the best adaptation of a James Ellroy book to hit the screen.

Cop is not a dense, labyrinthine crime epic in the vein of LA Confidential and The Black Dahlia (both of which failed, Black Dahlia much more so, in the almost Herculean task of transposing Ellroy’s words onto the screen). Cop combines elements of the rogue cop, police procedural and serial killer genres into an uncut little gem of a neo noir crime film.

The other reason it works so well is the casting of James Woods, who in the eighties had the market covered for hard-boiled sleazy burnt-outs, as the central character, Detective Sergeant Lloyd Hopkins.

Cop is based on Blood on the Moon, the first of three books featuring the character of Hopkins Ellroy wrote in the mid eighties. It’s been a while since I’ve read Blood on the Moon so I’ve forgotten many of the differences. Certainly, I recall the ending of the film is different to Ellroy’s book.

The film opens with the discovery of a mutilated body in an LA apartment building. Hopkins is first on the scene and the only clues are a blood-smeared book of radical feminist poetry called Rage in the Womb and a stack of newspapers with the same advertisement for a swinger party circled in red.

The newspaper adverts lead him to blonde bombshell, Joanie Pratt, “former actress, model, singer, dancer and what usually follows”, who admits she was helping the murdered woman, Julie Niemeyer, research the swinger scene.

When a letter written in human blood turns up in Niemeyer’s PO Box, Hopkins pulls the files on all unsolved LA homicides going back several years. It’s not long before he deduces he’s dealing with a serial killer. The link between his victims: they were all innocent.

It’s the one thing his born again Christian commander does not want to hear. Serial killers “panic the public and embarrasses the department” he tells Hopkins. There’s also the matter of Hopkins’ well-known reputation for having “a hair up his arse” about murdered women.

Hopkins demands additional men and resources to find the killer or he’ll go to the media, then storms out of the commander's office. Undeterred, Hopkins fronts a Sheriff’s deputy, Delbert ‘Whitey’ Haines, who discovered two of the bodies Hopkins suspects were victims of the serial killer.

Hopkins creeps Haines’ pad and finds marijuana, S&M gear, guns, and a wire that someone has been using to secretly tape Haines and his attempts to extort gay hustlers, including one called Birdman, for drugs and money.

Next he checks out women’s bookstores for leads on the bloodstained tome of feminist poetry found at scene of the Nieymeyer killing. Despite their obvious differences, he and the owner of one of these stores, ‘Ms’ Kathleen McCarthy, a tense, chain-smoking anti-police feminist strike up a rapport.

He takes her to a party full of LAPD brass instead of his wife (who has left him by now) and talking to her later that night discovers that she is still recovering from a rape that occurred in the last year of her high school.

She also tells him since that time fifteen years ago, someone has been anonymously sending her flowers. When Hopkins notices photos of Haines and another student nick named Birdman in McCarthy’s senior Year Book, his suspicions are further raised. He breaks into McCarthy’s house and finds that the flowers, which she has kept pressed in glass, correspond to the dates on the women he suspects were victims of the serial killer were murdered.

From here the body and sleaze count ratchets up considerably. The killer murders Pratt, sending Hopkins’ commander incriminating photos of Hopkins and the woman having sex in the kitchen.

Birdman is the next to be murdered, after we see him get in a car after soliciting the driver for sex, and Hopkins shoots Haines after forcing a confession from him that and Birdman were responsible for raping McCarthy.

Watching Cop now is like viewing a primer on how to do an eighties crime film. The look is washed out, the sound track comprises heavy synthesiser interspersed with wailing sax, and there’s lots of badly dressed cops in houndstooth jackets. The studio behind Cop were reportedly concerned that it would be seen as a slasher movie when what they wanted was something more like Dirty Harry. They ended up with both.

Cop came before Silence of the Lambs had made serial killers acceptable for mainstream audiences (although Michael Mann’s Manhunter, a far better film, was released in 1986), and the plot was one of the earlier iterations of the ‘cop-goes-AWOL-in-order-to-hunt-down-serial-killer-no-else-believes-exists’ story. The material is well handled, the film managing to capture the frenetic pace of Ellroy’s writing and the great dialogue.

Salvador, Once Upon a Time in America, Videodrome and much under-rated Best Seller, were all under Wood’s belt when he did Cop, and he’s at his reptilian best as Hopkins, a womanising sociopath who doesn’t just cut corners to get what he wants; he’ll smash down the entire building.

He’s the kind of policeman that, completely unprovoked, kills a suspect and gets his partner, Dutch, (Charles Durning) to deal with the consequences while he hits on the dead guy’s girlfriend. “You blow away a broad’s date, the least you can do is drive her home,” Hopkins tells Dutch.

Indeed, director James B Harris, who also wrote the screenplay, doesn’t baulk at depicting Hopkins at his worst. This includes showing the Hopkins’ barely constrained boredom, snatching glances at his watch, as McCarthy opens up to him about her life.

Assisting Woods is a great cast of supporting actors, including Charles Haid as Sheriff Delbert Whitey Haines, Durning and Lesley Ann Warren as the feminist bookstore owner, Kathleen McCarthy, who makes her otherwise stero-typed character almost believable.


Written by Andrew Nette

Andrew Nette is a Melbourne writer. His blog, Pulp Curry examines crime fiction and film, with a focus on Asia and Australia.

Monday, March 07, 2011

The Aura (2005)

Fabián Bielinsky’s Argentinean neo-noir film, The Aura--part heist, part character study subtly explores how one man compensates for epilepsy. Buenos Aires resident Esteban Espinosa (Ricardo Darin) is a quiet, introverted, complex man of contrasts. As a taxidermist, he spends all day prepping and restoring animals for museum pieces. His work is solitary and conducted in silence, and he pays meticulous attention to restorative detail. It’s ghoulish work, and yet incongruously Esteban has a strong distaste for hunting, violence and bloodshed.

In his spare time Esteban’s hobby is crime. Not that he commits crime but he obsesses on the perfect crime, and he believes that the perfect crime with no shedding of blood can be carried out if enough precision goes into the planning stages. His workroom is littered with newspaper clippings of various robberies. This hobby is carried to unhealthy extremes, and he even figures out the perfect way to knock off the payroll department where he picks up his measly check; anyone who thinks about how to knock off various institutions is probably dwelling on the topic too much.

Esteban’s obsession with crime may be linked to his epilepsy. Esteban lives with the constant threat of the unpredictable loss of control of his body, and he has several seizures throughout the film--collapsing on the floor, and before each seizure, he experiences an “aura.” In his case this is a brief warning period in which sounds become muted and he becomes disconnected from his physical environment. Is his fixation with crime--something he hypothetically plans and controls down to the last detail--a compensation for his disorder?

On some level it seems as though Esteban is a crime version of an armchair referee for the way he hoards newspaper clippings about heists and then pores over the details of what went wrong. To Esteban, the perfect crime is the planned crime, and in many ways, Esteban would make a superior criminal: he’s intelligent and he has a photographic memory. But when it comes to crime, he falls down on the issue of violence & brutality, and it’s fairly easy to imagine Esteban’s bloodless crimes as unrealistically optimistic scenarios. There’s another thing that makes Esteban poor criminal material; an adrenalin rush can push him into a seizure, and perhaps Esteban’s avoidance of excitement can be seen in his choice of employment. There are no coworkers to harass him, and he works at his own pace. Esteban’s manner and general lack of emotion hint of a lifetime avoiding excitement, so it’s arguable that his attraction to crime is a form of compensation for an otherwise dull life.

When the film begins, Esteban is working on restoring foxes for a museum display. While delivering the foxes (and expecting to get paid), he runs into Sontag (Alejandro Awada). It’s a stretch to say Sontag is a friend, but he’s close enough to know about Esteban’s obsession with crime. There’s some tension between the two men, and their relationship seems based on Sontag’s notion of his superiority. He goads Esteban about taking a hunting trip together, and makes derisive comments about Esteban, the so-called ‘master criminal,’ being reluctant to hunt, shoot and kill an animal.

After Esteban returns home and discovers that his wife has left him, he takes the bait and flies south on a hunting trip with Sontag. Things immediately go wrong. Sontag, with the bloated self-assurance that he’s always welcome anywhere, anytime, failed to make reservations. The hotel is unexpectedly full with tourists who are flooding in to enjoy the last week blowing money at the local casino before it closes. Sontag, who’s a real dickhead when it comes to interpersonal relationships, finally agrees to take the hotelier’s recommendations to drive out into a more remote region and rent a cabin from a professional hunter named Dietrich (Manuel Rodal).

The prospect of a downgrade move from hotel to wooden shack in the woods doesn’t do much to lighten the mood between the two men, but Sontag and Esteban find the nest of primitive cabins owned by Dietrich. Dietrich, however is absent, and in his absence, the place is run by his much-younger wife, Diana (Dolores Fonzi). The atmosphere is bleak indeed with an underlying sense of misery. Photographs of Dietrich on the wall with various animal trophies reveal a heavy-set man well into middle-age. There’s something unhealthy going on here, and that’s mainly manifested by the misery of Dietrich’s wife and the hostility of her surly, teenage brother, Julio (Nahuel Perez Biscayart).

The first day hunting goes badly, and ends in a confrontation between Sontag and Esteban. But then things go downhill from there….

A twist of Fate lands the plans for a seemingly perfect crime right into Esteban’s lap. While a sensible man would step away from the scenario, Esteban, who isn’t motivated by either money or lust, can’t resist the opportunity to prove his theory about the perfect crime. He finds himself draw deeper and deeper into plans for a heist of the casino’s lucrative last haul while he also becomes draw into the dark secrets of Diana’s life with Dietrich. The great irony is that while Esteban’s excellent brain enables him to link all the pieces of the heist puzzle together, he overlooks one tiny detail. While Fate seems to lead Esteban, step-by-step, down the alluring, irresistible path to the perfect crime, Fate also intervenes to snatch back Esteban’s success.

The film is not dialogue-heavy, and many scenes take place with no sound. This mood matches Esteban’s feelings of isolation and tension as he paces himself carefully through the plans for the lucrative heist. The film is also noticeably bleached of colour, and while most of it takes place in the Patagonia Forest, the lush, rich greens are leeched out, and instead the emphasis is on silvers and muted greens.

Ricardo Darin is a superior actor whose impressive resume includes The Secret in Their Eyes (2009) and Nine Queens (2000)--a marvelous heist film also from director Bielinsky. Darin is especially talented playing the man of thought, rather than the man of action, so the role of Esteban is perfect for Darin--a sad-faced man who avoids conflict with other males with his calm, guarded, unemotional manner. Note how he looks down to avoid eye contact when he’s confronted with aggression. Several scenes show Esteban’s eloquent understated reaction to violence without a word spoken. The Aura seems to argue that we are as our natures made us (a fact that Esteban accepts about Dietrich’s roaming livestock-murdering dog), and that ultimately, Esteban does not have the nature of a criminal.

The Aura was Bielinsky’s second and final feature film. He died of a heart-attack shortly after making the film leaving us only to wonder about the unmade films lost by this early, tragic death.

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