Sunday, May 29, 2011

Framed (1947)

I've seen Janis Carter as the female lead in two of Columbia's "Whistler" pictures, The Mark of the Whistler (1944) and The Power of the Whistler (1945), but I couldn't have picked her out of a lineup of other glamorous B-movie blondes from the '40s until I saw her as the death-obsessed femme fatale with a heart of ice in Henry Levin's Night Editor (1946).

The part she plays in Richard Wallace's Framed is more nuanced and less irredeemably evil than the role she played in Night Editor, but she's still a nasty piece of work.

Framed starts out with a bang. We see Mike Lambert (Glenn Ford), his hat pushed back on his head, looking scared and exhausted, behind the wheel of a runaway truck. The first minute of the picture looks like an outtake from Thieves' Highway (1949) or The Wages of Fear (1953). Mike careens around mountain passes, fighting the gears of the truck every inch of the way, and pumping the brakes to no avail.

It's a great way to start the picture, and it's fast-paced and suspenseful enough for the viewer never to stop and wonder why Mike doesn't try to run the truck off the road just outside of town instead of driving straight down Main Street and smashing his front fender into a parked pickup truck.

Mike Lambert isn't a guy who thinks thing through before doing them. He's a classic noir character — smart and resourceful, but bullheaded and cursed with a single fatal flaw. In Mike's case, it's his habit of getting blackout drunk at all the wrong times, a condition he accepts the way other men accept the weather. "I told you I never remember what I do after I've had a couple of drinks," he says, as though it's just another one of those things, like not being able to remember people's names or biting your fingernails.

Mike is an out-of-work mining engineer. He took the job driving the truck with no brakes to make a few bucks, but the truck owner's refusal to pay him and his citation for reckless driving leave him stranded in the little California town with no choice but to do some time in jail, since he's flat broke and can't pay the fine.

A beautiful guardian angel appears in the form of pretty blond waitress Paula Craig (Carter). She pays Mike's fine for him and even lends him money to get a room in town. It's not hard to see that she must have ulterior motives, but Carter plays her role well, and has good chemistry with Ford, so it's easy to sit back and let yourself be lulled for a little while into feeling as though you're watching a laid-back, romantic drama in which everyone will live happily ever after.

And for awhile, things seem to be going Mike's way. He befriends the kindly, bedraggled old man (played by Edgar Buchanan) whose truck he hit, and who just happens to have a mining claim he needs help with. Mike also does a good job of keeping Paula at arm's length with matter-of-fact statements like, "Don't count on anything I said last night. Liquor blanks me out."

Soon enough, Paula's evil schemes become apparent to the viewer, if not to the booze-addled Mike. She's only working in a greasy spoon to troll for a patsy that she and her boyfriend, Steve Price (Barry Sullivan), need for a scheme they've got cooked up. And Mike fits the bill.

Framed is a programmer that benefits greatly from having a rising star like Ford in the lead role. It's a B movie that's clearly cast in the same mold as Double Indemnity (1944) and The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), but I think it succeeds wonderfully on its own terms. The script by Ben Maddow (based on a story by John Patrick) evolves naturally as it chugs forward, and never seems too contrived. Shifting loyalties and the yearnings of the main characters drive the story forward, and it never felt as if plot points were being checked off.

Richard Wallace, the director of Framed, was a hard-working studio hack. His career as a director spanned from 1925 to 1949 (he died in 1951), during which he made 46 features and 15 shorts. Of the films he directed that I've seen, Framed is one of the best. It's a brisk tale of love, lust, and betrayal that might not quite qualify as a classic, but it's never boring.


the article was originally published on his blog, OCD Viewer

Sunday, May 22, 2011

High Sierra (1941)

Humphrey Bogart finally became a star in 1941.

He was hardly an overnight sensation. The New York actor -- blessed with good luck and what would become a powerful, irresistible presence on screen - failed and quit films once already. Hollywood wasn't exactly looking for Humphrey Bogart in 1935. While on Broadway Bogart landed the role of fugitive gangster Duke Mantee in The Petrified Forest. The role was much bigger than the one he was up for, but he was perfect for the part. Audiences flocked to see the stubbly-bearded actor on stage; audibly gasping when he would make his entrance. When it came time to make the hit play into a film, Warner Bros. decided to cast Edward G. Robinson in the part of the “gangster on the lam.” It was an obvious choice, but Robinson wouldn't have it. He was trying to break away from gangster roles and turned the part down. Bogart - with the support of star and friend Leslie Howard - landed a part perfect. The role of murderous gangster would stick with Bogart for the rest of his career.

Bogart, now under contract with WB, was put in crime movie after movie. Many of them are now considered the best gangster films of the 30s and 40s. Many are worth forgetting. Edward G. Robinson - ultimately unable to break free from gangster movies - was usually the lead - playing the guy that would gun down second-banana Bogart. Along with Robinson, James Cagney, George Raft, John Garfield and Pat O'Brian, Bogart was part of Warner Bros. gangster roll call. (He did fit the tough guy part perfectly. Occasionally Bogart would be cast against type and do a comedy (It All Came True), Western (The Oklahoma Kid) and even a horror film (The Return of Doctor X). They're best left unseen unless you're a Humphrey Bogart completest.)

High Sierra was never meant to be a Bogart movie. George Raft turned it down, complaining that he was told he wouldn't be offered “Humphrey Bogart-type parts.” Paul “Scarface” Muni was also contacted. He was also not interested in doing gangster films. Muni's “serious” movies are forgotten. Raft may now be more famous for the roles he dismissed than the movies he was in. After High Sierra, he turned down The Maltese Falcon, and later Double Indemnity (much to the relief of John Huston and Billy Wilder). Muni and Raft were two of the biggest stars of the day, but Bogart is still a household name.

Colorful producer and old speak-easy friend of Bogart's, Mark Hellinger - a journalist turned producer who came up with the idea for The Roaring Twenties - thought more could be done with Bogart (you can glimpse a look at Hellinger at the end of the trailer below). A film version of W. R. Burnett's High Sierra was to be made and he didn't want a typical Bogart performance. The lead was a complex criminal - much different than the thugs played by Bogie up until now. John Huston was to co-write the story with Burnett. Scribe Huston and actor Bogart first worked together in the now-unfortunately named The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse released in 1938. Directing was tasked to Raoul Walsh - the patch-eyed man's-man who directed Bogart in his previous film They Drive By Night. Walsh, Huston, and Hellinger each consulted privately with the actor to convince him to to make “Mad Dog” Roy Earle a tough criminal with a decent soul.

Bogart was given second billing behind 22-year-old rising star Ida Lupino (who was also in The Drive By Night.) It's understandable when you watch They Drive By Night. George Raft and Ida Lupino eclipse Bogart in the film. (Lupino was not nominated for an Oscar for They Drive By Night --or any other movie for that matter-- as previously written here.) It probably was hard to imagine Bogart outshining Lupino in their next film. But he does. No one has ever called High Sierra an Ida Lupino film. Bogart owns it.

After years in films and on stage honing his craft, the actor as old as the century gave one his best performance to date. His facial expressions and body language throughout say more than anything spoken in the film. A giving man who could have been more if he was something other than a thug. A man whose only real friendship is with a dog and a “dime-a-dance” girl.

The story is about a career criminal (in the book, he's part of the Dillinger mob) released from prison by Big Mac- a crime boss-- who arranged his release so he could spearhead a crime with a big pay off. (I'm sure the studio didn't like the idea of a crooked judicial system. Huston would face that again when he peppered The Asphalt Jungle with crooked cops). The parolee heads to the Sierra Nevada mountains to meet up with his young, inexperienced crew (all future film noir faces: Arthur Kennedy, Cornel Wilde, and Alan Curtis). Unimpressed, he then then drives to L.A. to meet Big Mac. He nearly literally runs into a farmer's family as they're on the road to California after losing their farm. Earle strikes up a romance with the much-younger daughter who has a clubbed foot and old fashioned, simple farmer that becomes a surrogate dad to Earle. He arranges to have Velma's clubbed foot looked at by a former doctor (a defrocked doc now working for the gang). 'Doc' says the foot could be fixed by a simple operation. Earle arranges the surgery and - despite the protests of the family- will pay for the surgery with some of his take from the crime. Further motivating Earle is Big Mac - a friend from the old days --who is very ill and need the money from the crime. Earle returns to the mountains and immediately starts straightening out the crew. The older man makes it clear he's no cream puff.
Ida Lupino plays Mary. Red and Babe are fighting over her. She ditches both and stays with Earle instead. Earle isn't taken with her as much as he is the innocent farm girl in Los Angeles. In clever bit of foreshadowing, Earle bonds with a little dog - Pard (actually Bogart's dog, Zero). The dog has a “curse.” Everyone that's ever owned him has died. That's according to Algernon played by Willie Best. (It's a horribly dated black minstrel part. Best, although quite talented and still funny, is hard to watch without wincing.) Pard shows up at all the wrong times bringing bad luck wherever he goes. The “easy” robbery goes bad... as does everything else in Earle's life. One of the inexperienced crooks cracks after a violent standoff with the cops. Marie, Earle and Pard are on the run. No one will touch the stolen jewels from the robbery. Big Mac is dead. Nearly broke, Marie and Pard are put on a bus to L.A. and Earle ends up in the mountains surrounded by police in the now classic standoff.

This was the first film Huston and Bogart made together and you can see Huston's touches throughout the movie. Like The Maltese Falcon (Huston's first directorial effort), Huston was a master at taking the best parts of the book and managing to capture the feel of the novel in the much shorter form of a film. When Earle is released from prison the first thing he does is insist he be taken to a local park. He checks out the birds, sky, grass. Then he heads to the mobsters that released him for his assignment - a “piece of cake” holdup of a resort town hotel. It's a nice touch. And it would have never been in Bogie's earlier B-movies.

Bogart, now 40, has painted “Paulie Walnuts”-grey hair. He's just the right age for the part, but physically he doesn't match the hulking Hemingwayesque figure in the book. Warner Bros was initially reluctant to make the film about a noble criminal. Afterward, they continued to cash in on the story. In two remakes of High Sierra Joel McCrea in Colorado Territory (also directed by Walsh; but this time as a Western) and Jack Palance in I Died A Thousand Times come closer physically to the part, but were unable to capture what Bogart gave to the part of “Mad Dog” Earle.

Warner Bros. seemed to mark the beginning of the end of gangster movies with High Sierra. Of course it's still not over. But the golden era of Cagneys and Robertsons ended for the most part with World War II. The film noir era would begin with the shadowy High Sierra... and even more so less than a year later with The Maltese Falcon. Again, it wasn't to be a Bogart movie. After High Sierra, Bogart was put into another stinker, The Wagons Roll at Night - a circus film for God's sake. Following that embarrassment, he was to star again with Ida Lupino in Out of the Fog. Lupino objected; refusing to work with Bogart again. John Gafield got the part. George Raft got him removed from Manpower - replaced with Edward G. Robinson. Bogart, disgusted, got himself suspended from WB for refusing to appear in his next film, a supporting role in a Western. After Raft was out WB had no one else to chose and Bogart got the part - the third attempt at making The Maltese Falcon a successful movie.

Bogart and Huston would continue to work together and make movie history (after High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon it was: The Treasure of Sierra Madre, Key Largo [Bogie finally gets to kill Edward G. Robinson], The African Queen, and Beat the Devil.)

Sixty years later, it would be hard to find another Humphrey Bogart-type in films. Most crime and gangster films and TV shows have stars with chiseled abs, faces like models, and perfect teeth. Why is it that a underweight, older-than-his-years actor would be so successful? After all, Hollywood then isn't as different as now. They always market the young, new, good looking star; and they seemed to miscast Bogart until he had some true pull after The Maltese Falcon. Maybe it's because Bogart was different and it took guys like Huston to see past his looks and see talent. In his eulogy of Bogart he said, “He is quite irreplaceable, there will never be anybody like him.” Not unique words but ones that were 100-percent true of Bogart. Talent, camera presence and some luck made him a movie star. His films are just too good to be forgotten.

High Sierra is a great Bogart movie.


Written by Steve-O

Sunday, May 15, 2011

I Want to Live! (1958)

Editor's note: This article, written by Anne Hockens, first appeared in Noir City Sentinel (now called Noir City). Anne is Noir City's news editor. To receive the Noir City quartly e-magazine, donate at the Film Noir Foundation.

The trailer for Robert Wise's I Want to Live (1958) emphasizes three things: sex, Susan Hayward emoting heavily, and a great jazz soundtrack. However the film delivers much more in its depiction of convicted murderer Barbara Graham. It opens with a signed testimonial from Pulitzer Prize-winning report Edward S. Montgomery, declaring the film “factual,” and citing his series of articles in the San Francisco Examiner as the source material. The film's dramatic authenticity, however, does not stem from slavish depiction of facts, but from the complex view it takes of Graham, its examination of how and why she's convicted, and its unflinching look at the death penalty.

As the film opens we are instantly dropped into a nightclub where a jazz band plays fast and hot: the camera's kanted angels, in a series of rhythmic cuts, illustrate the club's inhabitants: jazz fans, men prowling for women, hipsters smoking dope, etc. The camera travels up the club's exterior wall, peering through a hotel window at the silhouette of a woman smoking in bed. A man's hand shares the cigarette. Thus we are introduced to Barbara Graham, and the lifestyle she has willfully chosen. The choice will ultimately dictate her fate.

A cop busts into the room to arrest the man for violation of the Mann Act. Barbara defiantly states that she paid for the room, taking the rap for prostitution, a misdemeanor, to save the guy from a federal charge. Her motivation? In the guy's wallet she'd seen a photo of him with his wife and kids. When he thanks her for taking the rap, she hands back the wallet with a wistful smile, telling him not to lose it. For Graham, “family life” is a seemingly impossible ideal, one she's willing to sacrifice for, even when it's not her her husband or her family.

The film cuts to her post-prison life. She and her friend Peg are hosting a wild party. Two revelers from San Francisco ask if the girls will provide them with an alibi for a robbery. Peg declines, wisely declaring, “this is where I cut out.” Barbara, however, makes her decision based on a roll of imaginary dice, essentially leaving her fate to chance. She believes she can fool the judicial system, collect a couple of bills, and have a good time in San Francisco. Predictably, she does another prison rap instead - this time for perjury.

As Barbara leaves prison again, a kindly matron tells her, “You do not have a choice. People have manged to be fairly happy by not getting into trouble. Get a job. Maybe get married.” This comes after a review of Barbara's criminal record, which reveals that as a teenager Barbara went to the same reform school as her mother. The film has raised a new question: Has Barbara's sorry upbringing spoiled any chance at normalcy?

Barbara continues her shady ways in Los Angeles, where she meets and marries Henry Graham, a shifty character who introduces her to local criminal Emmet Perkins, for whom she got to work. Her road to the death house ironically begins with a bid for domesticity. She tells Perkins she's jealous of housewives and longs to leave the crooked life. “No white knight's going to come riding through your life,” Perkins replies. He's right; her dream turns nightmare. Next seen, she's in a shabby robe, in an even shabbier apartment, clutching a child as her junkie husband slaps her to the ground, demanding money for a fix. She give it up, but swears it's the last time.

Seeking sanctuary with Perkins, she discovers that he's wanted by the police, along with cohorts John Santo and Bruce King. She goes on the lam with them, not realizing they're wanted for murder. Veering from some accounts of the story, the screenwriters depict Barbara as innocent of any involvement in the crime of which she's ultimately convicted. This greatly strengthens the anti-death penalty argument central to the film.

Barbara, tailed by the police, unwittingly leads them to the hideout. She is arrested along with Perkins and Santo. She refuses to cooperate with the police and winds up in jail on a murder charge. On the first day of the trial, reporter Ed Montgomery declares, “It's Mrs. Graham's tough luck to be young, attractive, belligerent, immoral and guilty as hell.” Guilty of what? Murder? Or an indecent life style? What happened to the presumption of innocence?

Barbara Graham is tried in the media as well as the courtroom. The film repeatedly incorporates headlines, as well as television and radio broadcasts, not only to further the plot but to illustrate the public's simultaneous fascination and revulsion with her life.

Although the film condemns the social hypocrisy of Barbara's treatment by the press, public and judicial system, the issue of her own personal responsibility is raised with the reintroduction of Peg, who visits her old friend in prison. Barbara is concerned that Peg's husband will find out how they used to live. Peg reassures her, “I came clean about everything long ago. When I told him I was coming to see you, you know what he said? “That's what friends are for.” Barbara, seen through iron bars, is almost in tears, unable to comprehend this kind of man. Peg says that it could just have easily have been her in prison, but Barbara contradicts her: “You're a different person now. You have been ever since you got smart in San Diego and cut out.” Could Barbara have saved herself, too - or was her own character, and poor taste in men, that made her demise inevitable? The film has no easy answers; she's neither master of her own fate, nor the hapless victim.

During the trial, she's mistrusted as a witness due to her lifestyle, her prior criminal record, and her previous perjury conviction. The worst blow in her case comes when her attempt to doctor an alibi for the night of the murder comes to light. Her co-conspirator is actually and undercover cop, sent to entrap her. She faked the alibi only because her her lawyer kept insisting she had no chance for acquittal without one. As she puts it, “I couldn't prove my alibi and I was going to the gas chamber. And I was desperate.”

The film at this point moves its anti-death penalty stance to the fore, depicting the tortuous appeals process Barbara endures in the hope of saving her life. The emotional toll wears Barbara down, battering her inherent defiance. She tells Peg she, and her son, would be better off if she was executed. But when a stay of execution comes, she realizes: “I want to live.”

Her petition is denied, and once again and she's taken to the death house. The emotional tension becomes almost unbearable as a series of stays keep delaying her execution. With audience sympathy for Barbara at its strongest, the film depicts in harrowing detail the preparation for execution, making the repeated delays even more ghastly. As Barbara spends her last hours awaiting death, the action cuts between her cell, the preparation of the death chamber, and the last-ditch legal efforts to have her sentence commuted.

Ultimately, Barbara goes to the gas chamber, leaning on the prison staff for support. She chooses to be masked, not wanting to see the faces and reactions of the witnesses. As she walks towards death, one of the high-heeled shoes she had insisted on wearing falls off. Her priest tenderly puts in back on for her. All these details reveal a fragility the audience had previously barely glimpsed in Graham.

Wise films her death matter-of-factly. The camera dispassionately following the process in precise detail with a series of cutaways: to her chest, legs and arms strapped down; to the executioner whispering advice on how to die more easily; to the witnesses peering through the glass chamber; to the cyanide eggs dropping; to the wafts of deadly smoke reaching her face. No swelling music, she dies quietly, her face obscured by the mask. This detachment makes her death even more terrible and poignant.

The strength of I Want to Live! Is in the eschewing of melodramatic technique and simplistic, black-and-white morality. The film neither presents Barbara as an innocent victim of circumstance, nor as an inherently evil femme fatale. While the film acknowledges Graham's less-than-stellar character, it also takes the position that she was convicted largely on the basis of her libertine lifestyle and criminal history as opposed to solid evidence. (the truth may be murkier: prison guards interviewed after the execution maintained that Graham acknowledged her mart in the murders.) Nevertheless, the film clearly illustrates how she was unjustly denied the impartial treatment promised under the law. Most importantly, the film portrays what it truly means to sentence a person to death and raises the ultimate issue: Should a civilized society allow the death penalty?

Written by Anne M. Hockens

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Beware, My Lovely (1952)

Robert Ryan, like no other actor in Hollywood, had the ability to portray a string of unlikable characters, yet, in his behavior, audiences respond with a head nodding understanding. Like, “Hey, I know a guy like that.” Growing up in Chicago, Ryan was a child of privilege, whose family’s construction business grew as they helped build the city of Chicago into a modern metropolis. It must have been a lonely childhood after his only sibling died of influenza. Educated by Jesuits, Ryan developed a life long love of literature, and in 1931 he graduated from Dartmouth College with a degree in Literature. He wasn’t all brains, because, while in college he was an undefeated boxing champion for all four years. Things were tough for everyone in the middle of the Depression, especially for young college graduates. Without asking for assistance from his family, Ryan spent two years working in the engine room of a freighter going around the world. Upon his return he worked on a ranch out West. After helping in the family business for a while, he started to take acting classes and came to California in the late 1930s. Except for a hitch in the Marines as a Drill Instructor during WWII, Ryan’s life from 1940 until his death in 1973 was dedicated to acting, the peace movement and civil rights. He especially enjoyed live theater, but it’s the films he made that paid the bills and for which we remember him. In 1952 alone, three noirs with Ryan were released - Clash By Night, On Dangerous Ground and Beware, My Lovely. All three of his protagonists are alienated men, isolated from the every day give and take of human discourse that gives life a semblance of meaning and coherence. It’s only his Howard Wilton in Beware, My Lovely that is beyond any capacity for personal redemption, for Howard is a homicidal paranoiac.

It’s Christmas time 1918. World War I has just ended, and Howard Wilton is a handyman. One day he finds his employer lying dead on the floor of a closet. Having strangled her during one of his mental blackouts, Howard panics and hops a freight train and ends up finding another job as a handyman for a war widow, Mrs. Helen Gordon (Ida Lupino). Howard seems “normal” enough as he’s given a list of chores to do. However, when Gordon’s niece chides him for doing “women’s work” when he’s on his knees washing the floor, Howard’s mental spigot gets turned on. Alternating between anger and defensiveness, Howard severs the phone lines, locks all the doors and takes the keys, making Mrs. Gordon a prisoner in her own house. Lupino shows remarkable cool and has to play the cat and mouse game with Howard trying to figure out how to break free from her own home. While she is angling for a route of escape, Helen appears attentive to Howard’s tale of woe, how he has no friends, that he’s unloved, and even was rejected by the Army examination board. When Howard finds that Helen has been lying to him about the unavailability of a rented room, he threatens her, traps her in a room, and comes within a hair’s breath of killing her. By this time a telephone repairman comes, and Lupino is able to tell him to get the police. Howard has now snapped back into a semblance of “normal” behavior and leaves the house totally unaware that he will leaving walking into the waiting arms of the police.

Beware, My Lovely comes in at a brisk 77 minutes, and was made by RKO at a time when Howard Hughes was in the throes of running the studio into the ground. It was directed by Harry Horner, primarily a Production Designer (Academy Awards for The Heiress and The Hustler). He only directed a handful of films and a variety of TV shows, but in Beware, My Lovely, he shows his artistic eye in doing as much as he could of what must have been a shoestring budget. He avoids any of the typical noir low-key lighting that is often used to create menace and instability, for essentially a flat, evenly lit network television look. Instead, what he does is use a variety of extreme angles, close ups and medium close ups that create a sense of claustrophobia and entrapment. There is one startling shot of Lupino viewing Ryan’s reflection in a Christmas tree ornament as he creeps up behind her.

In many of Ryan’s noir he plays characters that are bellicose and unpleasant.

In Beware, My Lovely, he alternately is confused, sympathetic and angry, often changing his character in a matter of minutes. Ryan wasn’t an actor who was spontaneous. All of his movements (the flickering eyes) and speech cadences were well rehearsed. Later in his career, as family financial responsibilities became pronounced, he appeared in big budget films, especially war films, where the pay was good and his screen time was short. Towards the end of his career Ryan rebounded in memorable roles in The Wild Bunch, and the part that, as an actor who took his craft very seriously, he was born to play, that of Larry Slade, the failed idealist waiting to die in O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh. This is his greatest role, yet those series of characters he played between 1947 to 1959 in over a dozen noirs presents us with a body of work that is, arguably, the most tortured and troubling, and, in my opinion, the best, we have seen from a motion picture actor.


Written by Bob

Monday, May 02, 2011

Odds Against Tomorrow (1959)

Released by United Artist in 1959, Odds Against Tomorrow is the compelling story of three diverse men and a “One roll of the dice and we’re through forever” heist that brings these unlikely bedfellows together.

This is the third film in Robert Ryan’s bigotry trilogy, the others being Crossfire and Bad Day at Blackrock. Odds Against Tomorrow, with screenplay by Abraham Polonsky pits Earl (Ryan), Dave (Ed Begley) and Johnny (Harry Belafonte) in a plan to regain the lives they all knew in better times. Each of them is burning in a private hell. This is brought on by them selves and, of course, the road to salvation is paved in money, lots of money by means of a “can’t miss” bank job orchestrated by Dave.

The film opens with a scene of water running down a gutter, which in view of the characters we encounter is quite fitting.

Dave’s the character we know the least about and for all intents, primarily serves as the buffer between Earl and Johnny. He’s a former 30 year tough cop whose career ended with him spending a year in the pen for contempt. Once on top of the world, he’s now living in a fleabag hotel, its wall adored with pictures and plaques of bygone days when he knew everyone and rubbed elbows with them all. His sole companion these days is his faithful German Shepard. One easy score and he’s back on easy street for the rest of his life; so he thinks.

Earl’s a two-time loser whose spent time in the joint for assault with a deadly weapon and manslaughter. He’s a veteran of WWII with a red neck and mean streak to match it. He’s lost in a world in which he has no place and knows it. With no visible means of support he’s currently shacked up with his clingy, motherly gal Lorry (Shelley Winters) and reduced to running errands for her and baby sitting the kid upstairs. This is no life for a man of action. In one encounter when he’s lamenting his lot in life to Lorry and his dependence upon her as her boy-toy, she responds “There’s only one thing I care about.” Going for the kill he replies “I know, but what happens when I get old.” She one ups him as she storms out of the room with “You already are old!”

The third player, Johnny is cool as the other side of the pillow. He sports around in an Austin Healy 3000, dresses to the nines, and sings in a jazz club. Seemly having it all, he’s in the clutches of small time gambling kingpin Bacco (Will Kuluva) to the tune of “Seven five oh oh.” If the money issue weren’t bad enough, his addiction to gambling has cost Jonny his wife and daughter too. Divorced and only spending time with his young daughter on week-ends he’s now looking back to how it used to be and if he could only get out from under the debt to Bacco, maybe he could reclaim his family.

If you subscribe to the idea that “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery," then I hold director, Robert Wise guilty on three counts, the first two while Johnny spends times with his daughter in Central Park. One cannot watch the carousal scene without immediately having the image of Strangers on a Train flash in your mind. This is followed up moments later when, while holding his daughter’s balloon, Johnny steps into a phone booth. While there appears to be ample room within the booth for him and the balloon, it flutters on a string outside. The image is of Johnny placing himself in a spot too tight to allow the presence of his daughter or wife until he’s able to extricate himself from Bacco. While in the booth, a pair of teenagers stroll by duplicating the act of the maniacal Bruno, again from Strangers on a Train, by popping the balloon with a cigarette. The look of despair on Johnny’s face as he holds the remains of the balloon convey his acceptance that his former life is forever gone unless he can make the score Dave’s laid out.

Such are the predicaments the three find themselves in and after only having a good deal of soul searching by both Earl and Johnny does the plan begin to jell. The refusal to work with a black man by Earl and Johnny’s desire to stay clear of any enterprise outside of the law are finally put to rest, at least for the moment. While Johnny can accept the realities of the situation he finds himself in, especially after Bacco threatens to do harm to his wife and daughter, Earl’s hatred continues to boil just below the surface. Dave is the constant voice of reason and he bellows at Earl in one meeting.
“I don’t want to hear what your grand pappy thought on the farm down in Oklahoma!”

Poor Dave, thinking as if words alone could undo the ignorance and intolerance of one so twisted in his ideas as Earl. Earl who has double boiler makers for lunch and “two times” his gal by proving his manhood with the mother of the kid upstairs, Helen (Gloria Grahame).

While on the subject of “twos”, there seems to a reoccurring theme of things in tandem through out the film. Earl’s a two-time loser, the two seater car, dual carbs on the getaway car (’52 Chevy), both Earl and Johnny have two females in their lives, two thugs trail Johnny at the park, and two musical numbers. Maybe it’s the whole duality of man, love vs hate, black vs white or maybe I’m just seeing double.

Speaking of musical numbers, any one’s whose read one of my NOTW pieces knows of my disdain for the obligatory song routines that surface in these films. That noted, Johnny’s number at the club is a breath of fresh air. In that it is Harry Belafonte and not Liz Scott’s baritone or Betty Bacall being dubbed by Andy Williams, you’re getting the real deal and it is a welcome respite prior to the mayhem that will follow. Mayhem not only in the terms of the crime to be committed but in the interaction between Earl and Johnny and the venom that flows non-stop as when Earl says “You’re just another black spot on Main Street,” to which Johnny replies “Some day I’m going to snap off your poisoned head.”

That day will not be long in coming as the inevitable, heist goes bad, comes to pass and we’re left with the final showdown between the two antagonists, one black, one white. When the confrontation comes, it’s right out of White Heat, (the third instance of "Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery"). The only thing missing following an explosion of atomic proportions is the tag line “Made it ma, Top of the World!”

The tag line here, while more subtle is just as memorable as a fireman and ambulance driver having the following exchange while viewing the charred remains of Earl and Johnny:

“Well these are the two that did it.”

“Which is which?”

“Take your pick.”

Written by Raven
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